Harry Potter, fragmentary reading, and church history

Over the past few days my husband and I substituted Harry Potter for our nightly scripture reading. We read aloud, engrossed by the book’s mixture of imaginary prowess and cliché style that gives it such a winning combination of the magic and the utterly familiar. But although it would be tempting to talk about the content of Harry Potter here, what I want to draw attention to in this post is how qualitatively different the experience of reading a full novel in one or two sittings is from reading fragmentary bits of scripture every night. Whereas Harry Potter offered us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a story, the vast amount of reading that we perform – scriptures, emails, newspapers, or otherwise – consists of reading tiny bits of de-contextualized information.

Although we are certainly not the first and only generation to read in a fragmentary manner – and perhaps I should extend this discussion beyond reading so that we can analyze more oral cultures as well – the extent to which we read fragments as opposed to whole works was brought home to me last semester when a history professor cautioned my against assigning entire history books to undergraduates. She pointed out that the students she teaches today rarely read them. They will read articles, yes, but not whole books.

Fragmentary reading appears to be firmly rooted within church culture as well. Our scriptures are neatly parsed into verses, most Sunday school lessons I have attended skip around in pursuit of themes rather reading chronologically or dwelling on any formal questions about the texts in question. Whereas the Book of Mormon tells epic stories that feature prophets as actors, D&C more recently features a series of disconnected revelations that paint Smith more as a receptive medium for God’s word than as the actor that he undoubtedly was. In many ways, fragmentary reading seems utterly appropriate within a religious context in which we are forced to shape theologies out of only small glimpses of the divine. But, if we grant the point that we are steadily shifting our reading habits within and outside of the church so that we reads bits and pieces of information rather than whole works – and we get spiritual fulfillment from moving anecdotes about blessings or service rather than from epic stories, then I wonder what this shift will mean for those of us interested in exploring how religious groups authorize experience their faith. I briefly want to just speculate upon a narrow segment of that general question: how does fragmentary reading effect our relationship to church history?

In the absence of a mainstream Mormon population copiously exposed to church history, it seems likely that the ideas that come to define our faith will continue to be those statements that we reference most frequently within our oral culture of church talks and Sunday school lessons – and these references may not be accurate. This fact might have some decided downsides. It is easily possible to imagine a weaker commitment to studying church history (or at least a population that does not know where to turn to learn about church history from sources so compensates for its lack of a past by citing the same trite stories over and over). Perhaps this problem is especially accute within the Mormon church, because it lacks a professional clergy to produce authorized church histories and theologies. But it might also weaken our connection to the past in a way that might free us to more fully develop a lively theology for today that isn’t hindered by ties to the past. And, if church members do not need to fully understand church history to participate as members, then surely it might be easier to extend Mormonism beyond its historical American roots. Insofar as our church is commited growth around the world, its American history might be a burden as it strives for a global future.

Beneath these speculations lies a deeper question – a question I open up for discussion – about what our current relationships should be to the books and stories that constitute our church history – and to what extent tradition authorizes the gospel.


  1. Stephanie says:

    This is a very interesting topic. On the Harry Potter side, I find it really amazing that this woman has been able to write these big thick books that teens and adults alike will consume in a matter of days. But I find it sad that for many of these people, the Harry Potter books will be the longest books they ever read… But that’s rather off topic.

    I have recently grown some irritated with the way certain church history stories that aren’t quite accurate are spread about in the church. I think that faith-building anecdotes are for the intellectual and spiritually weak. I suppose I am being a bit harsh. Excerpts just don’t do it for me. I think when people base their beliefs on “tiny bits of de-contextualized information” they are opening themselves up to a lot of future disappointment.

  2. John Williams says:

    On the Harry Potter side, I find it really amazing that this woman has been able to write these big thick books that teens and adults alike will consume in a matter of days.

    Yeah, but some people will inhale a bag of Oreos in one day. A Harry Potter book is as good for your brain as a bag of Oreos is for your body-fat percentage.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I think I’ve heard of some wards that get together and read the BoM all in one sitting (I think going late into the night or something). Has anyone participated in something like that?

  4. Costanza says:

    My parents’ ward in Idaho did that. I think it was just for the youth and they spent the night at the church reading the Book of Mormon. I know that lots of people opposed it and that it was somewhat controversial although I can’t remember what the problems were.

  5. Melinda says:

    Fragmentary reading of Church history will continue to focus on the great acts of heroism that we are used to hearing about. We’ll continue to think of the pioneers as super-human, with an occasional statement that they were human, but without any supporting stories.

    I’d heard a few inspirational pioneer stories from my own background over the years. My ancestors joined the Church early, and had some amazing experiences that are worthy of being held up for praise in any Sac Mtg talk about pioneers. But when I actually sat down and read the 100 page manuscript, I found a lot more. I found a man who quit believing in God because his brother mistreated him so badly. There was the daughter who died of what sounded like depression. There was the gruesome murder of a close neighbor by men wanting his money. There was the young father who died because he took a stupid dare from his friends (to carry an anvil across the room – he did it, and died because the effort ruptured something internally).

    In sum, the fragments give us just part of the picture. You can’t learn a whole person in fragments. Concentrating on just the good affects our perspective about our own problems in society and personally. We start thinking that the pioneers were all faithful and smart and hardworking, and we can’t ever be that good. In actuality, we could go toe to toe with them if we had their full history.

    I’d heard stories about how awful it was that the Mormons got forced out of home after home. My ancestors’ histories described their life before Mormonism, when they lost four farms due to war, fire, being cheated, and bad weather over the course of 20 years. After joining the Church, they went through five more homes, but it took them the next 40 years to do it. So they actually averaged fewer forced moves per decade after converting than before.

    Someday I’m going to be asked to speak about pioneers, and I’m going to tell just as many stories about their weaknesses as their strengths and watch the jaws drop throughout the congregation.

  6. Three comments:

    1) Most of the investigators I have known who felt the spirit of the Book of Mormon the most deeply were the ones who picked it up, started reading it from page 1 and ended up reading it fairly quickly. They weren’t converted by its explanation of doctrine; they were converted by the spirit they felt while reading it. I am a bit uncomfortable with assigning chapters to investigators before asking them just to pick it up and read it cover to cover – perhaps explaining the need to plow through the Isaiah chapters and focus on the rest the first time through.

    2) I believe “a chapter a day” is a compromise created to try to give members (especially youth) something definable to use as a study technique. (Like once a month HT) In our family, we read verse by verse, discussing each verse’s meaning, for as long as we feel like reading that night. We discuss what verses are quotes, which ones are abridgments, and which ones are Mormon’s own words and interpretations. We don’t always stop at the chapter endings, since I want my children to understand the central themes Mormon used to create the record he wanted to leave for us.

    3) I like very much the idea of encouraging everyone to sit down and read the entire BofM as if it were a Harry Potter book – pick it up and don’t put it down until you are done. I just don’t like doing it as a group, where reading speeds differ so dramatically and public embarrassment will make it difficult for many kids and adults.

  7. Kevin, I have never participated in a ward (or personal) BoM reading in one sitting. However, many years ago I read huge sections of the BoM in a number of sittings — to finish reading it within a time period I had given myself, after having procrastinated said reading until the end, and deciding I was going to “cram” and do it anyway…

    Reading the BoM this way (King Benjamin’s complete address, Abinadi’s teaching and testimony, Alma’s counsel to his sons, or reading about Christ’s visit to the Nephites in its entirety…) gave me a different insight and more complete generational “story” than I had ever previously recognized from reading a single chapter or certain number of verses at a time. There were connections I just hadn’t made before reading it in context like this.

    I now try to read my scriptures in this manner whenever possible, so as not to have it in fragmented pieces.

  8. Ardis Parshall says:

    I recently had the experience of proofing a typescript of an early edition of the Book of Mormon. It was a fascinating experience to read in pages and paragraphs with breaks where the sense of the text demanded it, not merely where a piece of punctuation made a convenient break for a verse. Lines that we use as proof text, that stand out as individual verses, blended back into the text where they belonged, and other lines and thoughts jumped to the foreground. Chapter-and-verse makes for convenient study and classroom reference, but I recommend everybody read one of the reprint editions just to read the Book of Mormon as it was intended.

    On the other subject of deliberately picking out dingy bits of pioneer stories to use in talks, I have to question what the motive is. If there is a point, a genuine Sacrament-Meeting-purpose point, in using those stories, go for them. But if you tell them merely to prove that they exist, or that you aren’t sucked in by the sunny, smiley, faith-promoting stories, why bother? You might as well read from the sections of their journals recording the number of bricks they made in a day, or the notes on whatever blight was striking the crops. Those are legitimate parts of the record, too. Being contrarian, when it is done only to demonstrate so-called independence, is arrogance — you make yourself, not your message, the point of your talk.

  9. Melinda says:

    I read the OT in 45 days at the very end of my mission. It didn’t leave a lot of ponder time, but it did give me a good overview of the themes that run through the entire tome. That fast run-through let me connect the OT themes to the BOM better, and I really started to see the BOM’s connection to the OT.

    Ardis – surely I’m not the only one sick of hearing that the pioneers are super-human. I don’t see anything wrong with telling some of the negative stories just to prove they exist. I have no problem with throwing in a few entries about the number of bricks they made to prove they had boring times too. The message would be that the pioneers had struggles too, and sometimes they failed and sometimes they succeeded. I think that’s an important message for today’s Saints, rather than hearing the usual way pioneer stories are told – an impossibly high standard of faithfulness we can never meet. Why not tell stories that make them human beings rather than super-heroes?

  10. Melinda, I have no problem showing that pioneers were regular humans just like us – IF the overall point of the talk is that they rose above their weaknesses and periods of boredom to do great things, and that we can use that example to do the same thing in our similar lives. I think such an approach could elevate their sacrifices in our eyes, and inspire us to see our ability to emulate them in a real and practical way. I hope that’s what you had in mind. If, on the other hand, the focus is simply to “de-mystify” the pioneers, and if the result is to lessen them in our eyes and to demean their sacrifices, then I agree with Ardis.

    The following is from a talk my 12-year-old daughter gave on Pioneer Day – her first talk in SM. (Yes, Dad is bragging.)

    “As we celebrate Pioneer Day it’s important to honor the early saints who built the church, but it is equally important to live our beliefs as strongly and openly as they lived theirs. They were willing to endure persecution and death for their beliefs. Are we willing to stand up for ours?”

    She only had 5 minutes. Your approach would not have worked at all in that time frame. In a 15-20 talk, I think it could be done properly, but I think it would be hard with less than that.

  11. Ardis Parshall says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with telling some of the negative stories just to prove they exist.

    I do. And not because the pioneers are sacred cows whose marble statue perfection must be preserved in sparkling purity.

    You’re talking about a Sacrament Meeting talk, right? Where the purpose of speaking is to “instruct and edify each other, that ye may know how to act and direct my church”? In a setting like that, history isn’t taught for its own sake; it’s used in the service of something else.

    The point of the typical pioneer story is “he showed courage in the face of adversity; I am inspired to follow his good example” or “freedom to live the gospel is so precious that it is worth sacrificing creature comforts, as illustrated by the life of X.” Those are valid points of instruction and edification; they teach us how to act.

    A negative story can be valid for Sacrament Meeting, if there’s a gospel point: “like me, he found it difficult to follow counsel (see negative examples); like me, he eventually mastered his weaknesses by (struggling but improving examples).” If your point is “sometimes they failed and sometimes they succeeded,” you have to include those boring success stories — which your first comment did say you would do, but which works against the stated goal of “watching jaws drop throughout the congregation.”

    Negative stories told only because they exist do not instruct or edify. “Pioneers weren’t so special. They grumbled, got drunk, and expected somebody else to do the hard work” fulfills what purpose of Sacrament Meeting?

    I don’t mind negative stories in church when there is a legitimate point. I do mind stale gossip when the intent is to shock the congregation or to demonstrate the speaker’s sophistication.

  12. Stephanie says:

    Yeah, but some people will inhale a bag of Oreos in one day. A Harry Potter book is as good for your brain as a bag of Oreos is for your body-fat percentage.

    Hence the “but” that follows my statement. I doubt many of the Harry Potter devotees will ever do the same with Anna Karenina, or even an Austen novel, let alone the BoM!

  13. Matt Thurston says:

    “We read aloud, engrossed by the book’s mixture of imaginary prowess and cliché style that gives it such a winning combination of the magic and the utterly familiar.”

    Harry Potter, or the Book of Mormon?

  14. #7, I read my BoM in the same way. If there is a larger story arc or multi-chapter sermon going on, I try to read the whole thing at one time.

    As to the post, I generally agree that we have become a culture of fragmentary readers. Who reads the newspaper from front to back anymore? (I read the Economist that way, but only every once and awhile). I was just remarking to my wife that in our study of the NT we typically use passages from three or four of the Gospels which correspond to roughly the same story in Christ’s life. What ends up happening is that we weave the elements from all of the stories together into one cohesive narrative. Nobody asks why the stories are different or what that reveals about the concerns of the particular author. At some point, I think it would be nice to shake up the SS curriculum and focus on reading the Gospel of Matthew first, Mark second, then Luke, etc. I think that some new insights will emerge from this approach that we typically ignore because we feel that all three or four passages deserve equal, but equally brief, time.

    Church history is much the same. We hold on to a couple of often-retold stories that make us feel good, and ignore copious amounts of other history, both faith-promoting and not. I think that the tendency among most members is to not read large historical works on the Church, because a large portion of the books out there are not written from the “friendly” POV. Even when they are, that fear prevents many from picking such a text up. As an example, I have run into several people that won’t even pick up Rough Stone Rolling. And Deseret Book won’t carry any of Terryl Givens’ works because they are “anti-Mormon” (this came to me from Bro. Givens’ own mouth and was told to him by some higher-up at Deseret Book, not sure if it was Sheri Dew, but I think it was). The point is that anyone who has read Givens knows where his heart is; but nobody at DB reads this stuff to begin with.

  15. Try getting a copy of The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition, edited by Grant Hardy. Formatted as a regular book, rather than being chopped into verses. It’s a revelation!

    It also contains an excellent introduction and some very useful appendices.