Book Review: Adam Miller’s Future Mormon

Adam Miller’s new book Future Mormon:  Essays in Mormon Theology is laid out in a series of digestible-length short essays.  Reading his essays is like talking to a smarter, more esoteric friend or maybe sitting next to a chatty and interesting professor on a flight.  His essays generally follow a pattern for me:

  • Adam says something moderately profound but provocative that makes sense and that I totally agree with.  I think to myself, “This is going to be good.  Go, Adam!”
  • Adam follows that up by saying something that sounds really smart but is completely incomprehensible to me.  I re-read it several times, and then give up, shaking my head at how stupid I must be not to comprehend what he’s saying.
  • Adam patiently walks back from Adam-land to where he left me in confusion and patiently, even respectfully, takes me through the steps to get me to the newfound understanding that is the true thesis of his essay.
  • Along the way, like a dad walking on a beach with a small child, he points out interesting things, thoughts I can mull over at a later time, ideas I haven’t ever fully formed before, observations, and insights that have been hiding in plain sight and feel immediately familiar but newly articulated.
  • When each essay concludes, my inner world of ideas has become a bigger place.  My curiosity is awake.  I’d like nothing more than to sit and think my new thoughts, but there are more essays to discover, so I keep reading.

I confess; I still don’t get the title.  The Introduction explains it thus:

Every generation must work out its own salvation.  Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations.  And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again.

Call me crazy, but I expected more robots.

The future of Mormon thought is an important topic, one that is behind the existence of the bloggernacle.  We blog because it’s how we thoughtfully engage with our religion.  We discuss our ideas.  We try to understand the past as well as the trajectory of the future.  The powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse, to quote Dead Poets’ Society.  In a highly correlated religion in which not only the questions but the answers are scripted and monitored, these discussions feel like needed fresh air.

Often, those who leave the church are derailed by either the unsavory past (or the white-washed presentation of it they received in seminary) or aspects of the present that are inhospitable.  But what about the future?  That’s the undiscovered country, and we can co-create it, or so these essays imply.

This is a collection of thirteen essays, starting promisingly with A General Theory of Grace, a topic that is a real specialty for Adam.  He expounds on one of the most insidious aspects of Mormon culture, the almost-verbalized notion that through strict obedience we can be saved.

Potential strategies for avoiding grace span the whole of human behavior, but we should note, in particular, one surprising approach to sin:  strict obedience.  One strategy for suppressing the truth and avoiding God’s grace is to put God in your debt. . . . Obedience, as a strategy for avoiding God’s grace, is, of course, highly ironic. . . . Religion may be, in some respects, sin’s most successful strategy.

Two essays are devoted to close, fresh readings of familiar passages from the Book of Mormon:  1 Nephi 1 and burnt offerings, and the troubling encounter between Jacob and Sherem.  He paraphrases 1: Ne 1:1 (and possibly the existence of the bloggernacle) succinctly:

We’re taught because we’re born, he says, and we write . . . because we suffer.

He explores the principle of transference in relation to the exchange between Jacob and Sherem, and cleverly reminds the reader of an oft-ignored subtext of the Book of Mormon, that Nephi, Lehi and Jacob were Christians while others among them were Mosaic Law abiding Jews who viewed their Christianity as a suspicious heresy.

Several essays are a response to other popular works including Fiona and Terryl Givens’ The God Who Weeps, Terryl Givens’ Wresting the Angel, and various works by Cormac McCarthy.  He even expounds on Pres. Uchtdorf’s 2015 General Conference address “The Gift of Grace.”

Other topics he tackles include the fecklessness of a binary approach to the gospel, the value of participating in a church full of diverse individuals, including, and perhaps particularly, the ones that make us uncomfortable, the nature and various types of truth, Jesus as a psychoanalyst, the value of understanding the gospel based on a network framework rather than as a “kingdom,” and reconciling religion with secularism.

I’ll end in the middle:  Adam’s essay A Manifesto for the Future of Mormon Thinking.  He optimistically claims that “In the future, Mormon thinking will be fearless.”  Implied in this is that in order for Mormonism to survive into the future, we have to become fearless, and only love is fearless.  Why is this essential?  As he puts it:

It is always possible to bear a truth untruthfully, to wield the truth as a weapon against my enemy or as a shield to justify my stupor.

But he reminds us that

truths are bigger than we can imagine.  They cannot be confined to our own limited perspective. . . . A truth that is small enough to be thinkable only from my position and only in opposition to my enemy is no truth at all.

These are powerful words, and an important caution for members of a church so often prone to believe that we own the truth and not the other way around.  The truth is bigger than we are, both individually and collectively.

The gospel as Adam expounds it in Future Mormon is challenging, but like all good exercise, the work needed to understand these ideas feels productive.  I broke a good mental sweat.

Comments

  1. Yeah, I agree and I think you’ve nailed the approach he takes – some sort of provocative opening, a little intro, then total aporia, then rebuilding the reader as he goes. Future Mormon (so far) is extremely good. I think the subject matter is very similar to his rephrasing of Romans but with a bit of a different bent towards the rising generation. Enjoying it greatly so far.

  2. I’m a Adam Miller junky, so I’m going to click on over and purchase this. My biggest complaint is that he is putting out books faster than I can read, re-read, digest, read (rinse and repeat several more times) them again.

  3. A Happy Hubby says:

    Angela – your admitting that you have to re-read Adam’s writings sure makes me feel better as I have to on most anything other than “Letters to a young Mormon” (but I think he wrote that for a high school level reader)

  4. I have a rule that I can’t buy a new Adam Miller book until I’ve spent some time digesting the one I just bought. I guess I’ll just have to find some time these next few weeks to mull over The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace.