Book Review: Eric Huntsman, “Worship: Adding Depth to Your Devotion”

Worship: Adding Depth to Your Devotion
Eric D. Huntsman
Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016.
Hardcover, $19.99.

In my observation, Mormons mostly use the word “worship” in reference to the temple, where they can practice contemplative prayer in a venue more tranquil than many sacrament meetings. Eric Huntsman’s latest book aims to expand worship into more aspects of Mormon lives, focusing on prayer, ordinances, holy places, sacred time, scripture, and music. He approaches each of these topics by combining careful attention to the breadth of LDS scriptural tradition with holy-envy-inspired examples from other religious traditions and frequent anecdotes relating personal experiences that expanded his vision of what worship can be. With this method Huntsman ably draws out a rich potential for better worship in Mormonism that reads more as the actualization of latent potential than a critique of persistent shortcoming.

With its own dedicated chapter and a heavy emphasis in all the rest, scripture carries most of the weight in Huntsman’s book. He uses scripture in several different ways. Scriptural epigraphs set the tone for each of the chapters, which then undertake to address how their topics plays out in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and modern scripture. Huntsman is a professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, focusing on the New Testament, so his considerable attention to the Bible is not surprising. He takes care to ground his interpretations in traditional approaches to the text (e.g., assuming a literal Adam and Eve), which then gives him the credibility to introduce more challenging ideas from biblical scholarship (e.g., the possibility that Moses did not write the Torah). He balances contextual reading of the Hebrew Scriptures with Christian readings of the Old Testament in a way that could seem jarring but should probably be understood more as inclusive of different approaches. Occasionally he challenges traditional interpretations, as when he insists (correctly) that 1 Corinthians 3:16 refers to the collective body of the church, not the individual bodies of its members. A book on worship may be the ideal venue for stretching LDS approaches to scripture, because Huntsman’s passionate sincerity about worship completely undermines any suspicion that his use of biblical scholarship might destroy faith. If worship is the goal, Huntsman shows that a wide range of approaches to scripture can lead there.

Huntsman also draws on what other religious traditions have to teach Mormons about worship, looking to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He makes clear that readers need not agree with everything about these traditions to learn from them. The Jewish principle of kavanah, or intentionality, recurs throughout the book: successful worship must be mindful and focused. The book acknowledges more complexity within Christianity than within the other traditions, though, as Huntsman looks to Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Evangelical forms of the faith. With Judaism, the diversity he notes is more historical, pointing to changes within Judaism over time. His approach to Islam is similar, if slighter.

The book’s purpose is not to cultivate religious literacy, however, but to show that resources for worship come from many different sources, and to urge Latter-day Saints to open their hearts and minds to any form of worship that “tastes good,” as Joseph Smith would put it, no matter the source. I endorse this impulse wholeheartedly, and I hope that Huntsman’s book will encourage Latter-Day Saints to become more familiar with other religious traditions and to embrace the good that they contain.

My favorite parts of the book, though, are the most personal. In between the individual sections of his chapters, Huntsman shares brief personal experiences, reflecting, for instance, on the times he’d attend other churches with his high school friends, or the time he saw a woman rapt in prayer near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. These sections show that Huntsman isn’t just about making abstract arguments, but about sharing the fruits of his experience with others. He’s writing from the perspective of a life that has benefited from what he advocates.

I also love Huntsman’s frequent use of hymn texts (including hymns that may be less familiar to most Latter-day Saints). He sings in the Tabernacle Choir, and he clearly understands how powerful a vehicle for worship music can be. What better way to make the case for sacred time than with these words by William Longstaff:

Take time to be holy:
Speak oft with thy Lord,
Abide in him always,
And feed on His Word.
Make friends of God’s children,
Help those who are weak—
Forgetting in nothing
His blessing to seek.

Take time to be holy:
The world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret
With Jesus alone;
By looking to Jesus,
Like Him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct
His likeness shall see.

Take time to be holy:
Let Him be thy guide,
And run not before Him
Whatever betide.
In joy or in sorrow
Still follow the Lord,
And, looking to Jesus,
Still trust in His Word.

Take time to be holy:
Be calm in thy soul,
Each thought and each motive
Beneath his control;
Thus led by His Spirit
To fountains of love,
Thou soon shalt be fitted
For service above.

I strongly recommend Huntsman’s book to anyone who feels called to worship more deeply.

Comments

  1. Oh how exactly what I’ve been looking for. Thank you for the review!

  2. Thanks Jason. You mention that he touches on “ordinances.” Can you talk a little about how he treats ritual in the volume?

  3. J., I didn’t bring the book with me today (as I should have), so let me give you a proper response later, when I can come back to it properly.

  4. Sounds like a a great book. I’m curious as to how he defines worship. It’s one of those words we feel we know intuitively, but can be difficult to put into words.

  5. He approaches it etymologically; the word is from Old English and means the state of finding worth or value in something. So, the book is about practices that help us better value God in our lives.

  6. Great review, Jason. Sounds like a valuable book.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this.

  8. Bro Huntsman gave a lecture version of this book a year at Aspen Grove that I was able to attend. I haven’t gotten the book yet, but in those lectures he defined worship as “an encounter with God that changes us.”

    I really love that definition, it has stuck with me ever since.

  9. “Mormons mostly use the word “worship” in reference to the temple, where they can practice contemplative prayer in a venue more tranquil than many sacrament meetings.”

    Except for a few moments in the temple chapel before a session or in the celestial room, such contemplative prayer in the temple implies not paying attention to the ordinance or endowment in progress. Even in the chapel or celestial room there are more distractions for me than engaging in such prayer alone in nature or privately in a room anywhere. I wonder if the term “temple worship” isn’t just Mormon-speak (rather than English) for “whatever goes on in the temple.” Alternatively, it could mean worshiping the temple rather than God. I fear that in some cases it may mean that. In any event, in participating in hundreds of ordinances in the temple, I have encountered officious, out-of-bounds temple workers more often than I have encountered God (never there; sometimes elsewhere).

    The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the sense of “worship” as “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being” is first recorded c. 1300. That is still the most common use of the term in English. Generally it is understood as comprising prayer and praise; instruction or exhortation being a sideline in a “worship service”, but not worship itself. In the temple ordinances there is little prayer and no discernible praise. Why do we use the term “temple worship” unless we’re trying to give the impression that the temple is something it isn’t or merely repeating a phrase used to mean, without acknowledgment, “whatever goes on in the temple”?

    Maybe Huntsman’s book will help me with this. None of the several other books on the temple have done so. Instead, they mostly assume or report that there is some encounter with God to be had there. I find it more readily elsewhere.

    Thanks for the review.

  10. My primary connection to the divine is through music. I may be one of the few that would actually be fine with heaven being just “singing praises to the Most High”. I have had profound spiritual experiences while singing, both Mormon hymns and not. For me music is the highest form of worship and I wish there was more music throughout our worship services, but particularly the temple where I feel it is most lacking.

  11. Apostle Adam Bennion (1950s): “What we need in this church is better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it.” (see Sterling W. Sill, Leadership, vol. 3 [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1978], p. 288).

    One of my best temple experiences was a session in the chapel on a ward temple trip. There we sang multiple hymns and had some short spoken messages. It was a unifying experience for the ward. That’s been years ago. I haven’t seen it repeated since then.