I met Ron Watt as a novice researcher when I first entered the old LDS Church Archives. He joined the archives with Leonard Arrington and having toiled diligently for many decades has subsequently retired (though you will still find him in laboring in the new building). He is perhaps the best expert we have on the Brigham Young Office Files, truly irreplaceable. At the end of 2009 Utah State University Press publish his magnum opus, a biography of George D. Watt. It will surely win awards (it is remarkable in many ways), but perhaps more than most recent books, it captures the humanity of its subject and exacts empathy from its readers. [Read more...]
The Old Testament is a fairly intimidating source of scripture as it was produced thousands of years ago by a culture that is greatly foreign to our own. The strangeness of the Old Testament text and cultural milieu is likely particularly potent for women who approach the text. Among the few things that we can say with confidence regarding the culture of Ancient Israel is that it was misogynistic. Therefore, Camille Fronk Olsen’s recent book Women of the Old Testament is best considered as a good introductory text to help teachers, particularly those interested in applying scripture to women’s lives, tackle this very difficult work.
As I reported on my recent post, I received Elna Baker’s book, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, Christmas morning. My interest in this book was piqued by a bcc interview with Elna, and a bcc review of the book. I will report here that I loved the book and highly recommend it. I especially appreciated Elna’s honesty in telling her story. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s funny as hell. [Read more...]
It is before Thanksgiving, I know. Nevertheless, the time has once again come to consider our relations and judge among them who will receive something cool and who will receive n’importe quoi. [Read more...]
When the book Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament came out, Julie at T&S posted a very positive review, and I followed that up with my own (see “Finally!” FARMS Review 19/2 ). A couple of months ago Julie and I had the chance to meet one of the coauthors of that book, Eric Huntsman, and found him to be as delightful a person as he is fine a scholar. [Read more...]
Eleven months ago, the Joseph Smith Papers Project inaugurated their publication efforts with the Journals series (review here). While the documents of that series had been previously available, the volume was nonetheless an extraordinary contribution to the study of Mormonism and its history. In September of this year, the Church Historian’s Press released their second volume, the first in the Revelations and Translations series: a facsimile edition, comprising two manuscript revelation books. [Read more...]
Elna Baker‘s new memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, is billed as a coming of age story of a Mormon girl in New York, a virginal Mormon girl in the face of Carrie Bradshaw’s (surprisingly STD-free) City. But her feelings of deep faith mixed with nagging doubts and her commitment to chastity while simultaneously wanting to have sex, are feelings any LDS girl or boy will know immediately as their own, even at (any one of) the BYU(s). And that’s why I think you’ll like this book, because it’s so frank and familiar. Also, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
There are, of course, the uniquely New York stories. Fortune cookie subway moments, an out-and-proud freshman roommate that regularly leaves a sex toy on the counter, a whole story about a celebrity “Warren Beatty” that, even if you ran into Peter Breinholt in a Cafe Rio, would never happen in Provo. But she tells her stories, the ones known to any single Mormon and the ones particular to New York, with an honesty that is disarming.
A Short Stay in Hell is, alas, mis-titled.
Our author finds himself in a deliciously cruel/comfortable Zoroastrian hell in which he must find the book of his life in order to escape. Trouble is, hell contains every book that could ever be written. It’s not an infinite number of books, but the size boggles his (and your) mind. Hell could last three days or three trillion years. Count on the latter.
Peck’s Mormon biography is evident here, from the relief that he is not in Baptist hell, to the guilt he feels after drinking coffee from hell’s Star Trekkian vending machines. Even hell is strangely (Utah Valley) Mormon — a place for beautiful white people with perfect teeth.
The central conceit is brilliant and there’s a real sense of pathos for our author’s desperate attempts to find and maintain human connections in an ageless place. I read it in one setting, desperate to find out if hell has an End. Peck has a real flair for capturing the yearnings of the human spirit, hell-bound or no.
Full marks too for the creation of the book’s villain — the beautifully evil Dire-Dan and his most excellent method of torture: kill — wait for resurrection — kill again. Repeat for a century.
It has recently come to my attention that we, as mormons, have done something shameful, I thought it may be too hot to post, but I can’t be silent. [Read more...]
I’m house-sitting for my friend Steve Shields while I’m visiting Jackson County, Missouri, doing research. Steve is the author of Divergent Paths of the Restoration and is the top expert on the subject of all the smaller expressions of Mormonism, which are quite numerous. Whenever I visit friends in the Mormon history community, I’m always eager to see their libraries. Steve has quite an interesting collection, especially relating to the subject of little known Restoration churches. I’ve been marveling at all of the works of Restoration scripture he has on a single bookshelf. These are very interesting, and I thought I’d share some of the titles with you along with some quick excerpts, picked nearly at random.
Signature Books recently announced that it has stopped publishing for an undetermined period of time. As one who is critical of Mormon Studies publishing generally, I see Signature’s move as unfortunate, though perhaps not unforeseeable. As I peruse my shelves I count not a few seminal works distributed by the press that George Smith built and I hope that most people join me in the hope that the press will soon be back in action. [Read more...]
After literally years of anticipation and abortive publication dates, the The Joseph Smith Papers released their first volume a few weeks ago. In a year of important historiographical developments in Mormon Studies, one event was paramount: on December 1, 2008, Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839 arrived at my door. [Read more...]
So it is that another year is come and gone. And as with other years we are happy to offer the guide to simplify Christmas giving with books that are actually worth reading. Take a pass on Yard-o-Beef and shelf-stable Cheese; give the gift of knowledge, wisdom…and POWER. [Read more...]
Soon 2008 will pass away as all things must, and 2009 will bring with it the standard changes in Sunday meeting time slots, primary classes, and, most delightfully, Gospel Doctrine curriculum. You see, on January 4, we will meet together and study the old testament of our own fashioning. Concomitant with such shifts is an offering by Deseret Book to enrich the lives of the Saints. Two years ago, the offerings were excellent; last year, not so much. This year we have an intriguing volume…let’s see how it stacks up. [Read more...]
William Morris is a gentleman scholar and principal voice at A Motley Vision, the leading blogosphere destination for Mormon arts and culture commentary, discussion and news. This guest post is the product of years of begging and cajoling to get him to participate here at BCC.
American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality by Myron Orfield* deals with issues that are familiar to (and in many cases directly experienced by) most Americans — urban sprawl and central city decay, obsession with school district boundaries, long commutes, worry over crime stats, etc. In fact, that’s part of the point of the book: this stuff affects everyone. [Read more...]
As a warm-up for BCC’s week-long celebration of Spencer W. Kimball’s 1978 revelation on the extension of Priesthood ordination of people of African descent, I’ve put together this basic, short bibliography [Read more...]
Jana Riess comes to us as one of the regular Dialogue participants.
I just returned from a very encouraging conference for young Mormon scholars–the first-ever gathering of LDS graduate students who are getting advanced degrees in theology and religious studies. About 40 such students, plus a few spouses, convened at Yale Divinity School on Friday and Saturday. We had folks from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, UNC, Claremont, Iliff, the University of Durham, and the GTU, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few schools. (All of our sessions were held in the RSV translation room, which felt very auspicious and cool.)
Sixteen students presented papers on everything from the Deutero-Isaiah theory and the Book of Mormon to the question of whether an LDS scholar is ipso facto a defender of the faith. All these papers were sandwiched between some great opening remarks by Richard Bushman, who helped conceive and organize the conference, and a closing session by Terryl Givens, who gave us a fascinating sneak preview of his cultural history of Mormonism, due out in August from Oxford University Press. [Read more...]
BYU religion professor Alonzo Gaskill‘s book, The Savior and the Serpent (Deseret Book: 2005), has as its central aim to “liken the story unto ourselves.” This is a welcome addition to Mormon thought on the Fall; readers will have to decide whether it is one they find compelling.
Professor Gaskill answered some of my questions. [Read more...]
On June 9th, 1844, Joseph Smith may have sent James J. Strang (a relatively obscure Mormon living at Burlington, Wisconsin, who was known as Jesse James before he reversed his first and middle names in about 1834), a letter appointing Strang as Smith’s successor as Mormon prophet. In conjunction with an angelic ordination, this letter launched Strang’s 12-year career as one of the most colorful individuals in Mormon history. During that time, Strang played the parts of the prophet, the seer, the translator of ancient scripture, the polygamist, the colonizer, the theocratic king, the democratic legislator, and, last but not least, the martyr.
Strang’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while still nominally in existence, effectively died with its founding prophet. Hence, the man and his organization are of almost purely abstract, historical interest. In spite of the relatively limited religious legacy of Strang and his version of the Mormon church, however, a surprisingly broad collection of quite good books have been written about the man. The most recent addition to this library is Vickie Cleverley Speek’s excellent “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons. [Read more...]
A few months ago, on a fast Sunday, Taryn (my wife) stood up during fast and testimony meeting and expressed her emotional and spiritual conviction of the value of our community fasts. Perhaps somewhat unusually, she didn’t emphasize the spiritual learning or comfort that she received through fasting; nor did she discuss miraculous, divine interventions that had been prompted through fasting. Instead, she talked about the social and economic solidarity reasons that, in Leonard Arrington’s interpretation, were the original reasons for the development of community fast days among the Mormons. In effect, my wife bore her testimony of Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom, a book that is neither canonized nor even published by the church. [Read more...]
What Da Vinci Didn’t Know: An LDS Perspective
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Andrew C. Skinner, Thomas A. Wayment
Page one of The Da Vinci Code boldly declares, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” (The Da Vinci Code, p. 1). Though admittedly other factors play into the success of this book, one might wonder how well it would have done without this opening assertion.
At this point, such speculation is neither here nor there. Just as many other critics have already sprung to the task of debunking The Da Vinci Code, Holzapfel and Co. have released “An LDS Perspective” just ahead of the movie opening this weekend (even references to the movie are made in the book). [Read more...]
Historian John Lewis Gaddis has written about the “landscape of history.” I can think of no better metaphor for history, the foggy vista of the past that unfolds before (or behind!) the historian. In a sense, there is only one historical landscape–the past as it really happened–but this landscape exists on a plane far beyond our ability to recover. Instead, we stand on a hill and peer at the past, study it, scrutinize it, but can never perfectly replicate it. The historical landscapes we paint are our version of that perfect Platonic landscape, and each one differs from the next: you see light, I see shade; you see peaks, I see troughs.
A new landscape of Joseph Smith has been painted. Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) is the must-have Mormon history of our generation (see John Hatch’s BCC review here, and the T&S symposium here). Bushman’s landscape of Joseph has more light than shade, but it is certainly not the Crayola-creation of Correlation. [Read more...]
David J from Faith-Promoting Rumor has provided this Mormon Dummies’ Guide to the names of God in the Old Testament. Every Kool Kat has to know his El Shaddai’s from his El Elyon’s.
In the cultural milieu in which the OT was written, knowing the name of a person or thing opened up channels of communication between the two. The one who knows the name of a person or deity can appeal to that person or god. [Read more...]
Continuing to wind our way through the True to the Faith doctrinal booklet published by the Church in 2004 (earlier posts here), I settled on Family from the long list of F-words covered in the book. There’s nothing in the entry you haven’t heard before, as after a five-line introduction it simply repeats (in full) the Proclamation, described as an “inspired proclamation” that is now “the Church’s definitive statement on the family.” [Read more...]
[Complete series] The True to the Faith (TTTF) entry “Exaltation” is just three words: “See Eternal Life.” Interesting. I think the Church still believes in and teaches what Mormons have traditionally referred to as “exaltation,” but leaders prefer to use different terms now, such as Eternal Life, which is given a two-page discussion. Are we feeling less exalted these days?
[Prior entries] Slim pickings in D: physical death, spiritual death, debt, and divorce. Maybe we can just generalize and just say: Avoid things that start with D. Divorce is the most interesting of the four entries, especially in light of renewed emphasis on LDS family values in this, the post-Proclamation era. The Church is against divorce, of course; the only question is whether divorce is nevertheless allowed as an acceptable or at least tolerated option for those who find themselves in troubled or failing marriages. It is the exceptions to the general policy against divorce that deserve our attention if we want to understand the current LDS policy on divorce as briefly communicated in the TTTF article.
Heavy competition in the C’s, including Chastity, Church Administration, and Coffee, but I chose the Cross because I have rarely seen more than a cursory one-sentence discussion of why the LDS Church declines to use the image of the cross in its churches and its literature. The standard explanation is that the cross is a sign of Christ’s death, whereas in the LDS Church we celebrate His Life. In this post I’ll review the seven sentences of the TTTF entry, then discuss the pros and cons of the LDS position.
This is the second installment looking at selected articles from True to the Faith (TTTF), a doctrinal booklet published by the Church last year (here’s the first post). The article on Body Piercing is three short paragraphs. “Latter-day prophets strongly discourage the piercing of the body except for medical purposes,” begins the first paragraph, and “[t]hose who choose to disregard this counsel show a lack of respect for themselves and for God.” Seems clear enough, except that “[i]f girls or women desire to have their ears pierced, they are encouraged to wear only one pair of modest earrings.” So four earrings are bad, two earrings are good. Body piercing is wrong, except when it’s not. I don’t dispute the practical necessity of “grandmothering in” the practice of women wearing a pair of earrings. It just seems to undercut the notion that body piercing per se is wrong.
One of the more intriguing ideas at this year’s Sunstone Symposium was Lavina Fielding Anderson’s suggestion that True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, the short but authoritative doctrinal handbook issued last year by the First Presidency, is “the new Mormon Doctrine.” To make us all a little more familiar with this gem (and to determine if there’s really any “new doctrine” in it), I’m going to start a feature summarizing and discussing topics selected from the roughly 160 articles in the TTTF booklet. You’re a bright bunch — I’m sure you can guess the format of the next 25 posts in this series. “A” was a toughie: I picked Agency, but other entries worth mentioning include Abortion, Abuse, Addiction, and Apostasy. The topics selected for inclusion in TTTF include liberal coverage of contemporary moral choice issues as well as the standard doctrinal summaries, which makes TTTF especially interesting reading. The booklet seems to be directed primarily at LDS youth, which explains the simplified exposition of some doctrines and (at some points) a rather paternal tone.
I was fortunate to read an advanced readers copy of the highly anticipated Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman.
Put simply, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Bushman has a great deal to be proud of. In my estimation, his book exceeds all previous biographical attempts, including Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith: The First Mormon. Hill may have the upper hand in terms of prose (she is a marvelous writer), but she can’t match Bushman for his knowledge of history. Further, Hill’s book reads more like a general history of the Church from 1805–1844, while Bushman, as I discuss later, does more than any previous biographer to reveal *who* Joseph Smith was.