Book reviews: Brown, Holbrook/Bowman, Mason

Book reviews never do the books justice, not fully – the complexity of argument, the fine examples, these are always lost. So, try not to be too disappointed in micro-reviews of these three fine books, each of which are extremely valuable resources.

First is Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Patrick Mason. This collection of a dozen essays brings together the most pre-eminent names in Mormon Studies on a variety of topics across five broad themes: 1. re-evaluating the state of Mormonism at the end of the 20th Century, 2. international expansion and cultural diversity; 3. Mormonism and race; 4. new theoretical scientific models for examining Mormonism; and 5. the ongoing role of autobiography and memoir. In short, to a layman the book reads like a day’s worth of MHA – some very novel and interesting approaches to Mormon Studies, while other pieces seem more familiar and consistent with established approaches. Shinji Takagi’s review of Mormonism in Japan, 1901-1924 was completely new and illuminating, and Matt Bowman’s argument for Correlation as a progressive movement was intriguing (if not completely convincing). Michael McBride makes an interesting attempt at situating Mormon authority from the perspective of economics, namely rational choice theory – a fairly complex analysis for the non-economist but with some challenging implications, namely that formal (and informal) forms of authority create shared beliefs in order to coordinate action among believers. Each essay is interesting and powerful in its own right. If there is anything to fault within the book, it is perhaps a lack of cohesive theme between the various essays. While not a hodge-podge, the various essays perhaps reflect a difficult truth: that there are multiple, perhaps inconsistent directions for Mormon Studies in the 21st Century. We see newly acknowledged voices, new perspectives working alongside traditional approaches. What will be the primary path for Mormon Studies in this century? Only time will tell.

Next is Sam Brown’s Through the Valley of Shadows: Living Wills, Intensive Care, and Making Medicine Human. This is not a book about Mormonism, but the overarching principles of Mormonism explored by Brown in his prior books (In Heaven As It Is on Earth and First Principles and Ordinances) resonate strongly here. Brown, an intensive care physician and professor at the University of Utah medical school, explores the complicated and dehumanizing mess left behind as medical science pushes past our notions of a “good death” and towards the Dying of Death, a world where life can be sustained for decades longer than in the past. What ethics guiding principles do we have as modern humans with end of life decisions to make, where doctors and hospital bureaucracy flood our sick and dying with disclosurism instead of counsel, and where we’re told to have our “advance directives” ready in order to make sure doctors do what we want? The procedures of the ICU are filled with trauma, pain and uncertainty.

Brown’s view is both revolutionary and traditionalist: doctors must transcend the the temptation to view patients as a series of problems to solve, and instead recognize the distinctiveness and value of each life in the context of family and goals. How can we make death meaningful, beautiful and purposeful when patients are reduced to code status and the arbitrary lines drawn in a living will? Quite frankly, what Brown describes is atonement between the intensive care unit and patients: the two must see eye to eye and, in Brown’s words, “heal the ICU.” That means reforming the system with the help of patients and families, to keep the ICU outcomes-oriented but to frame outcomes properly within what it means to face death in a powerful and meaningful way. Health care systems must be there to help patients better understand the meaning of various health care crossroads and turning points. This means incorporating ‘best practices’ from a clinical perspective but also making room for patients to engage with the reality of death and the need to say the things previously left unsaid. For example, is performing CPR the right thing to do? The answer is not a simple matrix based on likelihood of prolonged life. Ultimately, Brown is driving the technical skills of ICU medicine towards the needs of the individual and community. I found this to be his most personal and powerful work to date. Through the Valley of Shadows provides a realistic vision to health care providers of how to bring a sense of dignity and healing to the most desperate and sensitive point of medicine.

Finally, Kate Holbrook and Matt Bowman have edited a volume entitled “Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives“. Most of the essays in the text were originally presented at a conference by the same title in 2012. As a result the book predates some of the major recent development concerning women in the Church. Women praying in General Conference, Ordain Women and similar movements have (perhaps) radically changed the landscape for women within the religion. That does not mean, however, that this book is outdated. Quite the opposite — it presents incredibly valuable historical context as well as practical analytic frameworks for looking at the complex worlds navigated by Mormon women. The essays on material culture by Jenny Reeder and Kris Wright are both poignant and extremely useful as a marker of the impact of women in LDS history and ritual. You can tell a lot by looking at some of the recurring themes in the essays: agency, authority, choices, culture: it is odd that when made the object of study, the agency of women in our faith is considered a problem. Agency was an organizing point of the conference, and for good reason: for some, women within the confines of a patriarchal religion cannot truly have agency, at least not in the sense of free will. However, the book presents a spectrum of perspectives on female agency, which is more complicated an more powerful than a simplistic view imagines. The essays provide international voices and practical solutions (Neylan McBaine reiterates some of her Women In Church pragmatism in her essay). Women and Mormonism presents to us convincing evidence that not only were Mormon women more powerful and influential in the past than most of us ever imagined, but that the future of women in the Church has similar potential. The volume is highly recommended.


  1. Thanks Steve — good reviews. Reviewing books is a lot of work and this is a great example of how helpful the end product is. Really looking forward to the Holbrook/Bowman volume. Really important work.

  2. Yes, I think it is an important work. Would be curious to see what the editors would have added to reflect the current state of things.