I received a question recently from a young man at a prestigious university:
He said he is 19 years old, a recent convert and prospective missionary.
He expressed an interest in the historical context of the “you can only read the Scriptures, Jesus the Christ, etc” rule for missionaries. How did it start? What was happening that Church leaders decided it was necessary?
Also, he wanted to know, in peoples’ experiences, how strictly is this rule enforced? The example he gave was reading CS Lewis. So, for example, how much would reading the Screwtape Letters be frowned upon?
This was my response (slightly edited):
First, congratulations on your conversion and prospective mission! How exciting that must be.
The types of rules limiting outside reading you speak of are of relatively recent vintage, and the list of acceptable readings has changed over time. When I served my mission to Colorado in the late seventies, there was a “Missionary Reference Library,” which, as I recall, consisted of Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Discourses of Brigham Young, Gospel Doctrine, Jesus the Christ, Articles of Faith, Doctrines of Salvation, Miracle of Forgiveness, maybe A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and perhaps one or two others I’m forgetting. I don’t recall whether we were supposed to limit our non-scripture reading to that set, but there may have been such a rule in place. If there was, I conveniently ignored the rule. I discuss this a little bit at p. 12 of my In Memoriam piece on Hugh Nibley that was published in Sunstone, which you can read here:
A few thoughts:
1. Your number one reading is going to need to be the scriptures. That should be a given.
2. I haven’t seen a scholarly treatment of the development of these missionary reading restrictions. If I think of it, I’ll blog on the subject and see if I can find out any more information for you. (I have to go to church soon.)
3. I suspect that, as is often the case, this is a lowest common denominator rule, as you rightly guessed. It is intended for the idiot kid who would read the swimsuit issue of SI and that sort of literature, as you say.
4. I may well get into trouble for saying this, but in the case of a mature and serious young man such as yourslf, I would say not to take such a rule too seriously. I feel quite confident that at least some general authorities would have no problem with a missionary reading The Screwtape Letters, per your example. If you are reading literature of that nature, it really shouldn’t be an issue.
Just my opinion, of course.
How would you have responded to the question? What are your experiences, perspectives, advice on this topic?