Book Review Roundup

A series of quick reviews from the layman’s perspective to tell you whether you should get a book or not. If you don’t want to read what I say about each book: I have to say, this time, each of these books are worth reading and owning, though some are more specialized in subject matter. I review some outstanding offerings by George Handley, Tom Christofferson, Max Perry Mueller, the Joseph Smith Papers, Craig Harline, and Turley/Johnson/Carruth.

Learning to Like Life: A Tribute to Lowell Bennion, by George Handley. Amazon CreateSpace, 2017. Handley’s long been a friend and fan of Lowell Bennion, that great LDS thinker-educator-humanitarian. And with good reason: Bennion, the founder of the LDS Institute in Salt Lake City, was a man entirely devoted to harmonizing his words and his actions in favor of helping those around him. Bennion embraced a life of simplicity and goodness. Handley’s book takes key lessons learned from Bennion’s life, and talks about the impact of those lessons on his own life. Handley’s book is in some respects an autobiography, an encomium of Bennion, but also a reflection of how a straightforward life of service and kindness can be transformative and powerful beyond measure. Handley’s writing is inspirational, aspirational and perspirational — it is clear that for Bennion (and Handley), salvation is found in earnest labor and hard work. It is worth noting that proceeds from the book will go to support the Birch Creek Service Ranch, an extremely good cause.

That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family, by Tom Christofferson. Deseret Book, 2017. I would point you to Julie Smith’s excellent review, because I agree with it, and I think she gets at the heart of Christofferson’s intent. This is a personal narrative, a gay mormon’s perspective. Note the use of the singular in the subtitle, A Gay Mormon. This is the truest subtitle I have ever read, for two reasons: first is because Christofferson’s experience is singular and unique (i.e., it may not be susceptible to replication), and second because in Mormonism, gay members must be single (or, more uncommonly, in mixed-orientation marriages). I also interviewed Tom Christofferson and will publish that interview shortly. The book is moving and powerful. Christofferson’s testimony of Jesus Christ has led him through some very difficult challenges, and it is a powerful witness that God loves all his children. It is clear that his singular (i.e. remarkable) ward and his family played a central role in his spiritual path, which is something I hope the rest of us can see and apply. The author is cognizant that his experience is not a template. As Hilary Mantell said, people do not live for the purpose of being examples for the rest of us. I will say that the book left me unsatisfied in a few respects. First, it is clear that some of the narrative avoids really taking on the Nov. 5 Policy, the theology underlying our treatment of LGBTQ members, and related matters. These are all discussed — his recounting of the days surrounding the Policy are very interesting — but ultimately they all lead back to the predominant narrative of not necessarily understanding, but having faith to move forward. Don’t misunderstand me, I think this is probably the most helpful outcome from those sorts of questions, but it feels like Christofferson pulled his punches a little and we’ve missed an opportunity to have a frank, open discussion. Still: to have a book like this from Deseret Book (a bestseller!) is a good thing. But the chief concern with Christofferson’s book is not necessarily the book itself, but the prospect that the book will be misused, wielded as a club against other LGBTQ members. That people read the book, turn to their gay son and ask, “why can’t you be like him?” or “why can’t you leave your partner like he did?” is my fear here. Again, Christofferson explicitly warns, several times, against using the book this way. I hope we listen to him.

Race and the Making of the Mormon People, by Max Perry Mueller. UNC Press, 2017. Mueller examines the history of race in the LDS Church, with the thesis that along with the religious novelties presented by Mormonism, the faith produced novel notions of race, namely a reframing of race in a quasi-universalist context, where race is malleable. Then, following the death of Joseph Smith, race ceased to be presently changeable, and discourse shifted towards ultimate redemption.
being In other words, race becomes religious through Mormonism, both positively and negatively. Mueller traces this history through deeper looks at central persons such as Wakara and Jane Manning James, but his perspective seems primarily geared around religious study and not necessarily raw history. The result is a fairly different treatment from historians such as W. Paul Reeve who have already dealt with the topic fairly extensively; Mueller seems more interested in teasing out the religious dynamics behind Mormon notions of race. An expansion of his 2015 dissertation, Mueller has brought us an fascinating perspective on a thorny topic.

A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and and the Birth of the Reformation, by Craig Harline. Oxford University Press, 2017. I loved this book. It’s a very approachable, almost conversational history of Martin Luther’s early days and the context for the Reformation. Harline, recently chaired professor of history at BYU and author of my favorite missionary memoir to date, is incredibly gifted in how he relates the story of Martin Luther in vivid, living writing. The history is there, but the genius of the book is personal detail and contemporary style. There are many books written on Martin Luther; as Harline himself said in a recent Maxwell Institute podcast, there’s probably more written about Martin Luther than anyone other than Jesus Christ. But only rarely is that writing accessible in a way that borders on some of the best historical fiction, while not getting bogged down in its own historiography. It’s just a great read.

The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, Vol. 6, February 1838 – August 1839, by the Joseph Smith Papers. Church Historian’s Press, 2017. We are getting into some of the really, really fascinating parts of Joseph’s life now with this volume, and it shows. The Missouri War, Danites, leaving Jackson County, “righteous retaliation”, Fanny Alger, Liberty Jail… there is so much in this time period and we’re witnessing a profound evolution in the mindset of Joseph Smith, as the organization of the Saints against the Missouri mobs forces him to assume a more militaristic role. The result is the largest Documents volume yet, and the first Church history book to my knowledge that acknowledges the military campaigns by the Mormons in Missouri in such frank terms: not just individualized vigilantes, but an organized counter force. There are touching moments here — Joseph writing to Emma in his own hand from Liberty Jail, while other letters are written by scribes, transcribed by others (including by women such as Zina Huntington) and circulated like Pauline epistles. Revelations during this time period, such as D&C 123, take on new poignancy when backed up by Joseph Smith’s Bill of Damages, part of the Saints’ ultimately futile efforts to receive redress from Congress. The perennial question with the JSPP volumes is whether they belong in the library of non-scholars. My answer in this case is yes, this is a volume that is really valuable for everyday Saints. It’s an absolutely fascinating period of LDS history and there’s nothing else that lays out Joseph’s life in quite this way.

Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers (two volumes), by Richard Turley, Janiece Johnson and LaJean Carruth, eds. University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. As a lawyer, I’ve been excited about this project for some time. The amount of work that went into finding, transcribing and editing these papers is simply astounding. Kudos to the production editors, research and review editors, and the supporting editorial staff here, because the output is remarkable. Of particular note are several instances where multiple sources for events (such as grand jury instructions) are compared in parallel, displaying right before our eyes how history is filtered and reformed. The legal narrative for the MMM is perhaps the best way to view the interaction between outsiders and Utah Mormons during the time period, as displayed between various frustrated investigators, prosecutors and judges as they try to piece together the facts despite Mormon mistrust. I cannot overstate how interesting it was to read the ancillary documents such as the petitions to pardon John D. Lee and Governor Emery’s replies, or the 1859 warrant for Brigham Young’s arrest. It brings a procedural framework to the story of the MMM that reminded me, frankly, of Law & Order where you’re unraveling a mysterious crime by forensics, investigation, interview and trial. As a Mormon lawyer who’s interested in history, these volumes were absolutely riveting.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Wow, someone has been busy reading! Thanks for all these reviews; looks like a lot of good stuff here.

  2. David Paulsen says:

    Have you read my book *Are Christians Mormon? *recently published by Routledge in the U.K.? If so, do you feel you can recommend it to LDS readers? I hope you can. Dave Paulsen

    On Sat, Oct 7, 2017 at 12:15 PM, By Common Consent, a Mormon Blog wrote:

    > Steve Evans posted: “A series of quick reviews from the layman’s > perspective to tell you whether you should get a book or not. If you don’t > want to read what I say about each book: I have to say, this time, each of > these books are worth reading and owning, though some are mo” >

  3. I appreciate these quick reviews and I read all of them. It can be an expensive habit.

  4. Eric Facer says:

    Steve, here are three others you may wish to add to your list:

    “The Pope and the Professor,” by Thomas Albert Howard. This is a fascinating story about the German theologian Ignaz von Dollinger who questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility promulgated in the 19th century by Pope Pius IX, who did not take kindly to criticism. Bollinger tried to reconcile his Catholic faith with his intellectual realization that Popes can lead, and have led, people astray. But when he refused to yield on this point, he was excommunicated. Fascinating reading that has parallels with certain episodes in Mormon history.

    “Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World,” by Eric Metaxas. This is an excellent biography that is almost as good as the one he wrote a few years ago about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Beautiful prose and a keen perspective into the character and thinking of Luther.

    “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve,” by Stephen Greenblatt. The author (who wan a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago for his book “The Swerve”) chronicles how theologically and culturally the Christian creation myth has been interpreted through the centuries. Some of his insights are quite interesting—his three chapters about Milton and the creation of “Paradise Lost” were most intriguing. In other areas, however, the book is somewhat imbalanced. For example, it would have been nice if he had devoted more time to Paul than Augustine.

    So many books, not enough time. . .

  5. What a reading list, and of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Everyone’s ready to double your reading list! Thanks for doing the heavy lifting for the rest of us.

  6. Aussie Mormon says:

    How long after the hardcopy version of the JSP volumes are they normally published in a browsable/searchable/viewable formation on the JSPP website?

  7. Aussie, typically very soon. The documents themselves are available, I believe.

  8. Thanks for the reviews. Looking forward to Mueller’s and Harline’s books.

  9. Strong work Steve — I want to read all of them! Thank you!

  10. Dang, Steve. More books to put on my reading list. I’m never going to get to the bottom of it.

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