Book Review Round-up

My goal here is to provide brief reviews to give readers a sense of what the books are about, what they’re like, their general quality and a recommendation of whether or not the book belongs in the collection of the average reader. This time, some heavy hitters in Mormon Studies.

The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church, by Jana Riess. Oxford University Press, 2019. I’m late to the party in reviewing. You couldn’t ask for a more topical, more engaging and more fascinating book about the current state of the Church. Riess has brought together some solid survey data (a large enough data set to provide for validated statistics) about the younger generation’s approach to belief. The results are in some respects surprising, in other ways troubling. I don’t want to spoil her book here, but even if you don’t think her survey data are compelling the conclusions are worth discussing and thinking about. Her discussion is both rigorous but understandable and digestible. It is a straightforward and compelling look at the present, with some prognostication about the future. The only group with better data is the Church itself, but they’re not sharing that data anytime soon. Riess does not necessarily propose solutions or corrective actions; her job is to describe what the data say. In this respect, The Next Mormons is extremely challenging and interesting. I think everybody should read it and talk about it.

Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences, by Gregory Prince. University of Utah Press, 2019. I found this book difficult to review. The topic of gay rights in the Church is extremely complex with a history laden with deep emotion. Prince has gathered oral histories and documents that tell a heartbreaking story, with voices that historically have been sidelined and demonized. This book should be a landmark work, and in some respects it is, particularly with respect to how it brings together the myriad articles, teachings, and policies of the church, alongside of the personal histories of those who have been personally affected by them. No one else has done this work on this level. Unfortunately, I found that the book’s organization was convoluted, the writing was sometimes lacking and it strongly needed editing, from the repetition of large block quotes to the extended insertion of personal viewpoint. Prince has excellent sources, but in my view he fails to provide the level of dispassion and thoroughness that the topic deserves. Further, this book is about gay rights, not lesbian, bisexual, transgender rights or those of other identities. Prince says, basically, that this is his chosen focus because this has been the Church’s chosen focus. That’s a serious deficiency. In my view, the topic is not well-served by partial histories. Regardless of its weaknesses, however, it is a significant book, the only one of its kind to my knowledge. This is a deeply important topic in our history. I believe we are currently standing at an pivotal place in the narrative, and we desperately need to have a deep understanding of what has come before. I hope that future histories will build upon this beginning point.

Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures Through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood, by Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye. Neil A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book, 2019. Inouye is a scholar of Asian Studies, who grew up in California and has a PhD from Harvard. She has traveled extensively and experienced many different cultures and challenges. Hence the title of her book, which implies the various intersections of her life: the US, China, New Zealand, being Asian, a wife and mother, a member of the Church, a cancer patient. Inouye also happens to be one of the most patient and kind people you there is. Her book is composed of letters, essays, blog posts and other materials gleaned from a rich life exploring faith at the geographic, cultural, and spiritual margins. It is a deeply personal book, one that courageously takes on the contradictions in our faith. Inouye teaches us how our differences in culture, our personal fears, and our own failings can all be paths to building Zion and making us more Christ-like. Even if you are not always swayed by Inouye’s arguments on topics like gay marriage or women and the priesthood, her efforts to bridge gaps and be of good faith are evident. The book is the embodiment of living faith, a tangible effort to understand and be understood. I recommend it.

A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon, by Larry E. Morris. Oxford University Press, 2019. For the uninitiated, a documentary history approaches an event or group or item of historical interest by looking at the primary documents written about that event or group or item. Here, Morris (formerly an editor with the Joseph Smith Papers project) has assembled an impressive collection of letters, articles and other sources of about the Book of Mormon, spanning the years 1823-1830. I especially valued Morris’ introductions and explanatory notes and maps, which were concise but extremely clear. It is fascinating to see, for example, the many years during this time period where there are simply no extant records or where nothing was said at all about the book. I would recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the origins of the Book of Mormon through a new, unfiltered lens. The raw historical materials are refreshing and immensely interesting. I would also recommend this review for more detail about Morris’ work.

The Joseph Smith Papers:Documents Vol. 8. Brent M. Rogers, Mason K. Allred, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Brett D. Dowdle, editors. Church Historian’s Press, 2019. This Documents volume spans February to November 1841. As the JSP volumes progress towards their ultimate conclusion, the volumes grow more dense, with various figures introduced the way Chekhov introduces a gun in his plays. For example, John C Bennett – advocate of tomatoes and spiritual wifery, and largely viewed as a traitor to Smith – appears in this volume, though his excommunication for adultery would not occur until the spring of 1842. This volume shows the growing importance of the Twelve, from their increasing administrative responsibilities to their foreign missions (eg Orson Hyde’s expedition to Jerusalem). The collection is important background for the conflict to come in the next years in Nauvoo. As such, while extremely important to historians, I don’t know that the casual reader will need this as part of their collection. But the Joseph Smith Papers continues to be one of the most significant activities of the Church in providing transparency and access to its history, and for that it is invaluable.

Comments

  1. Thanks, Steve. This gives me some ideas about next books on the pile to be read.

  2. Thanks Bill. The stack never ends!

  3. Truckers Atlas says:

    “The only group with better data is the Church itself, but they’re not sharing that data anytime soon.”

    Steve, can you elaborate? Data on what—attrition figures? Reasons for that attrition among millennials? If the latter, has the church done survey work with Jana’s same focus demographic that I’ve just not cought wind of?

  4. My understanding is that the Church regularly conducts surveys among the members.

  5. Hi Steve. I don’t understand why the Church doesn’t ask a leading LDS labor economist and econometrician (like the one I am married to) to help with this stuff. I thought this when they proposed that ill conceived self reliance program.

  6. Good question, but you’re presuming they don’t. They may very well be doing this.

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