Most Overrated Books in Mormon Studies

March 24, 2004 | 30 comments
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I am feeling testy today, so I thought that I would post on a subject I have been thinking about for a while: the most over rated text in Mormon studies. Perhaps it is part of being raised in a prophetic, leader-revering culture, but there is a tendency on the part of Mormon intellectuals toward hagiography. Not of church leaders of course. (Being Mormon intellectuals has liberated them from anything so crass.) Rather, I am talking about hagiography by Mormon intellectuals of Mormon intellectuals. (See the article on Quinn.)

Originally, I had thought of doing a most over-rated Mormon intellectual thread, but I ultimately decided that was too cruel, even for me in a testy mood. No personal attacks please. Rather, I am interested in those texts that everyone says are a “must read” but end up being a bit disappointing when you actually check them out. For my money the winner is:

Sterling McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

Don’t get me wrong. I like this book. It is a fun discussion of Mormon theology in the context of the history of western philosophy and theology. However, at the end of the day, McMurrin doesn’t have much to say about Mormonism that hasn’t already been said (better!) by B.H. Roberts. In addition, when you get right down to it, McMurrin doesn’t really spend much time even talking about Mormonism. Instead he gives us a rough and ready history of a couple of theological concepts with some commentary about Mormonism thrown in. Yet as an intro to the history of theology or philosophy McMurrin is woefully inadequate.

None of this is a criticism of the book per se, but it does make me wonder at the sometimes breathless way in which I have heard McMurrin’s acumen and insight praised.

Any other runners up? (Remember to be nice.)

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30 Responses to Most Overrated Books in Mormon Studies

  1. book 1830 on March 24, 2004 at 5:46 pm

    Well, the important thing to remember about Stirling’s book is that it’s strength is that Sirling is a critic of Mormonism and was criticized harshly for making Mormonism look so good. Signature Books did the book backwards. One should read Philosophical Foundations first at the end of the book and then Theological Foundations second. But Philosophical Foundations was an after thought and placed at the back as Theological Foundations was the more sought after title.

    As far as hagiography goes. One doesn’t have to go far to point out that historicaly most Mormon biographies are hagiographical. Mormon Mavericks wasn’t commissioned to be balanced, just informative. It’s an important book and the only place with extensive biographical material on Mike Quinn. If you like Mormon biography I’m sure you will find Signature’s forthcoming early bio of Joseph Smith something to talk about for years to come. It comes out late next week.

  2. Nate Oman on March 24, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    Yikes! Did I touch a nerve at Signature Books?!

    BTW, I have tremendous respect for the editors (especially one of them) of MORMON MAVERICKS. ;->

    Go Mom!

  3. Tom on March 24, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    Heck no. I just thought I would throw my two cents in. I find it interesting that Theology is for the most part, dead in Mormonism. I can only think of two books (I’m sure that I’m wrong) published about serious Mormon Theology over the past 10 years or so. Line upon Line by Gary Bergera and Blake Ostlers book from Greg Kofford Books.

    Any thoughts as to why that is??

    Tom

  4. Aaron Brown on March 24, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    I knew you were going to pick on McMurrin, Nate! In contrast, I will always have a place in my heart for McMurrin’s book, as I read it at a time in my life when it provided me with some much appreciated structure for thinking about theological questions. And whatever its deficiencies, let’s face it: It’s a bit more accessible to the general reader than Ostler’s _Exploring Mormon Thought_! (But mind you, I quite like Ostler’s stuff — he’s not overrated at all).

    Quinn’s _Same-Sex Dynamics_, while not overrated by most Mormons (did anybody like it?), certainly got rave reviews outside the Church. I guess for many it’s hard not to love a book on Mormonism and homosexuality from a prominent historian. I found it dreadfully dull, myself. (I thought the FARMS reviews were a bit overwrought, but it still gets a thumbs down in my book. It’s biggest crime is that it was BORING.)

    Aaron B

  5. Dave on March 24, 2004 at 6:43 pm

    Nate, I find it much easier to talk about the books I like than the ones I don’t like. But if that’s what it takes to cheer you up, I’ll give it a shot.

    I was disappointed in Sorenson’s Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. [And it still gets mentioned enough to qualify as a classic of sorts.] I like Sorenson, I just think the ratio of speculation to substance in the book approached infinity (but I suppose that’s my general take on the whole BoM geography/archaeology enterprise). I know he waited fifteen years to publish it, and did so only when urged to do so repeatedly by friends. The skimpy coverage given to similar themes in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism suggests there really isn’t much to work with in this area. Yet.

  6. Nate Oman on March 24, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    My problem may simply be that I read McMurring after studying philosophy at BYU for four years and being an active participant in LDS-PHIL discussions. There just didn’t seem to be that much there.

    I also read it immediately after reading B.H. Roberts’s _Mormon Doctrine of Diety_, and McMurrin’s work stood out as rather obviously derivative. Not that this is a problem mind you, it simply means that we needn’t rank the book so highly!

  7. clark goble on March 24, 2004 at 6:46 pm

    I’d second Nate’s nomination of McMurrin. I’d probably add _Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology_ which does the amazing thing of putting McConkie and Nibley in the same theological camp.

  8. Nate on March 24, 2004 at 6:46 pm

    Dave: Thanks for making an effort. I am touched… ;->

  9. clark goble on March 24, 2004 at 6:52 pm

    I’d disagree about Sorenson as I don’t think it was intended to be anything *but* speculative. i.e. here is a way to read the text in a consistent scientific fashion. It also pretty significantly revolutionized how people view the Book of Mormon. Yes if you are looking for more you’ll be disappointed. But I think he’s fairly clear on what he attempts.

    Contrast this with McMurrin which is just warmed over trite stuff.

  10. Tom on March 24, 2004 at 7:18 pm

    Nate

    I had heard through the mill that Susan had a very conservative son. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’m the token NRA/Liddy conservative at Signature. But clearly a liberal Mormon. Your Mothers writings are some of the most important narratives that have passed by my desk and normally are the highlights of any book she’s contributed to.

    Sounds like your reading. I give you 10 years. It’s only a matter of time before you become a liberal Mormon like me.

    ;)

    Tom .

  11. Tom on March 24, 2004 at 7:19 pm

    Nate

    I had heard through the mill that Susan had a very conservative son. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’m the token NRA/Liddy conservative at Signature. But clearly a liberal Mormon. Your Mothers writings are some of the most important narratives that have passed by my desk and normally are the highlights of any book she’s contributed to.

    Sounds like your reading. I give you 10 years. It’s only a matter of time before you become a liberal Mormon like me.

    ;)

    Tom .

  12. Nate Oman on March 24, 2004 at 7:28 pm

    Hah! If I am “very conservative” the folks at Signature REALLY need to get out more…

  13. Dan Peterson on March 24, 2004 at 10:58 pm

    I heartily endorse Nate’s choice of Sterling McMurrin. I once sat in the back of a session at Sunstone where, with Professor McMurrin himself beaming beatifically from the stage, the man was not merely canonized by acclamatio but nearly deified. I found it utterly baffling.

    However, right up there I would put just about anything ever published by Lowell Bennion. And I feel really bad about that. By all accounts — including from several folks I know well and greatly respect — he was a wonderful person. He clearly had a huge impact on a great many people, but maybe it was exposure to him in person that made the difference. (I never met him.) I’ve also been told about his brilliance, his wonderful dissertation on Max Weber at Strasbourg, etc., etc. He has been characterized to me as one of the leading Mormon intellectuals of all time. But I just can’t see it. Everything I’ve ever read by him seemed, well, pedestrian.

    I realize that he devoted much of his time and energy to charitable endeavors, to service and to teaching. And I have no doubt that that is choosing the better part. In hundreds of thousands of cases, the world would be better off if the wood used to produce books had been left in the forest and the time and energy of their authors had been devoted to charity, instead. But, while Brother Bennion may have been a saint, his writing leaves me, at least, entirely cold.

    This is a pretty nasty exercise. I’ll probably have to answer for it on Judgment Day.

  14. Julie in Austin on March 24, 2004 at 11:26 pm

    OK, someone’s gotta say it . . .

    while Hugh Nibley is responsible for some of the best LDS thinking of his generation (think “Patriarchy and Matriarchy”, think of the critique of BYU culture and management-style (non)thinking) he’s also responsible (or, perhaps, FARMS/Deseret is for publishing and disseminating) some of the . . . the . . . words fail me. But: his prodigious learning, esp. of languages, is often used in a way that completely mystifies the reader. While I’m certainly no proponent of lowest-common-denominator writing, HN seems to have no concept of what the ‘educated layperson’ is capable of understanding.

    And don’t get me started on what has been appropriately labelled his ‘parallelomania.’

    OK, this is a nasty mud-hurling thread and if anyone mentioned *my* book here, I’d probably cry for a week. *But* I think one thing we lack in Mormon Studies is the willingness to sometimes Just Say No.

  15. Jim F. on March 24, 2004 at 11:54 pm

    Julie, not to worry. Authors like you and me don’t sell enough copies to be rated, much less over-rated or under-rated. Mabye some day.

  16. Kristine on March 25, 2004 at 8:25 am

    Clark, I’m with you about Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy. My problem with it is that I think there may be something to White’s major thesis, but it’s such a wandering, weakly argued book that it’s hard to tell.

  17. Nate Oman on March 25, 2004 at 10:36 am

    Note: The original point of the thread was to identify “over rated books” not necessarily “over rated people.”

  18. Melissa on March 25, 2004 at 10:54 am

    Dan,

    I’ve read Bennion’s dissertation on Max Weber and I would give it the same marks that you have given his other work. It amounts to a simple summary of some of Weber’s ideas. It was published in 1933 so it represents one of the first secondary works published about Weber in English. Bennion studied abroad and at the time his dissertation was perceived as a contribution (because it was a first of sorts.) I wonder if this combination of things (being in the right place at the right time) is where his reputation of “brilliance” comes from? In his diss. he also suggests that Mormonism may be an example of Weber’s overarching larger thesis (quite a claim in 1933, I think) Perhaps people were excited about that?

  19. Melissa on March 25, 2004 at 10:54 am

    Dan,

    I’ve read Bennion’s dissertation on Max Weber and I would give it the same marks that you have given his other work. It amounts to a simple summary of some of Weber’s ideas. It was published in 1933 so it represents one of the first secondary works published about Weber in English. Bennion studied abroad and at the time his dissertation was perceived as a contribution (because it was a first of sorts.) I wonder if this combination of things (being in the right place at the right time) is where his reputation of “brilliance” comes from? In his diss. he also suggests that Mormonism may be an example of Weber’s overarching larger thesis (quite a claim in 1933, I think) Perhaps people were excited about that?

  20. Kristine on March 25, 2004 at 11:28 am

    I think Melissa hints at a general problem for academic work. All but the MOST brilliant stuff seems pretty pedestrian after a decade or two, at the outside. And being first is always hard–if you’re the first to work on some primary source or other, there’s nobody to build on, push against, or criticize, and a huge chunk of your task is to do exposition, rather than analysis. Good analysis will always seem more sexy than exposition, which is frequently boring.

    In the Mormon Studies case, this problem is amplified an extreme version of the small world problem. There just wasn’t anybody familiar enough with Mormonism and sufficiently grounded in philosophy to give McMurrin’s work the critique it needed. Same with Bennion, I suspect. And who was going to question Nibley’s application of proto-neo-semi-Ugaritic to Book of Mormon Studies?

    It’s almost impossible to do great work in a vacuum, and we who have the benefit of a few generations of good work to build on should probably at least acknowledge that as a condition of our criticism.

  21. Adam Greenwood on March 25, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Kristine may be on to something. It takes an enormous amount of genius, after all, to take uncharted ideas and make them obvious and pedestrian. No doubt it also takes some talent to take obvious and pedestrian ideas and make them exciting for a while. :)

    In any case, the whole hagiography of Mormon intellectuals thing isn’t entirely a question of low intellectual standards. Even the critics have Mormon roots and are thus susceptible to our underlying feeling that character is the mark of the man, that God has sent us heroes to imitate and to model our lives. Certain intellectuals get lionized because they courageously enact the story of courageous person fearlessly turning on doctrines and organizations they can no longer espouse, at great personal cost, or else the story of a courageous person wading into the intellectual thickets to defend the faith, emerging with their own faith unscathed. Stories like these, and real-life models of them, are very valuable, although they may do harm if they lead us to impute unlikely brilliance to their work.

  22. Andrew on July 1, 2004 at 3:43 am

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  23. Lorin Hansen on April 8, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    It is interesting to read the comments about some of the prominent writers of the past. As Krisine put it: “It takes an enormous amount of genius, after all, to take uncharted ideas and make them obvious and pedestrian.” I think we miss the greatness of some of these works when we look at them so long after they were written and thus miss the context in which they were written. Lowell Bennion never tried to impress anyone with his intelligence. He tried to keep the gospel simple and beautiful. After being buried with the “proof text” approach in my youth, his approach seemed overwhelming and inspiring. His “Introduction to the Gospel,” which I taught from for a few years, was a breath of fresh air in an environment of “proof text” presentations. For his students he was willing to dig deep and discuss even “forbidden” topics. For example, he caused a storm by being willing to respond to the topic of artifical insemination to a group of med students at the LDS Institute in SLC. You see a little of the genius and originality and courage of these authors if you look at what happened to them. Lowell Bennion was essentially fired from the Institute program. James L. Barker did pioneering writing on looking in more depth at the so called great apostacy and was humiliated once in conference by a discussion of his material. George Boyd, for triying to be too liberal and philosophical, was pushed out of SLC and sent to corrupt the students in Southern California. One stake president told me, “If they don’t want him up there, we don’t want him down here.” Attempts were made to excommunicate Stirling McMurrin. Only David O. McKay saved him that. Some just skirted the edge of the cliff. Heber C. Snell (author of a text on the OT) only survived in the Institute system by the persuasion of his friends. T. Edgar Lyons told me that his article on the evolution of Mormon doctrine in the Nauvoo period stirred up a storm, and almost didn’t get published. At that time Mormon doctrine did not “evolve.” Arrington’s article on the economic interpretations of the Word of Wisdom almost caused the death of BYU Studies. Only the start up of Dialogue saved it. Look at how he was treated as Church Historian after a decade of incredibly prolific work. I believe the first edition of “The Story of the Latter-day Saints” was declared non-acceptable in the CES because of its use of the word “communitarian.” I think Hugh Nibley survived at BYU because he paid his dues in defending Mormonism, was obviously loyal, and was so smart and esoteric that people didn’t know what to make of him.

    So if you grow up in the more enlightenbed atmosphere of today, you may completely miss the originality and courage of those older works. It would be well to forget some of this old history, but it comes to my mind when I read critics of the past. In their day, these older scholars carried the torch for better scholarship. Take where we are now, and what will be your contribution?

  24. Blake on April 8, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    Lorin:

    Lowell Bennion, George Boyd, Sterling McMurrin and Carlisle Hunsaker (who was also forced out for writing a great article for Sunstone) were close friends mind (Carlisle still is). They were brave and willing to face the ridicule of died-in-the-wool types (as Bennion called them). It still happens. My bravery is nothing like theirs, but if you think that we live in “enlightened” days I’m not convinced. Although my article on the Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source has bee accepted in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism as a live option and many faithful saints see it as a reasonable way to approach the text, it was originally seen as an attack on the faith (look at Stephen Robinson’s attack on it — and he later presented a very similar view of JST!). Speaking out about “cultural overbeliefs” is likewise risky business. I have (thankfully) been taken off of lists of consideration for bishop because I have published with Sunstone and Dialogue. I have no desire to press the limits or even to present a new take on the restored gospel. I just want the best thinking that can be done on our faith as a shared treasure. Yet how can I address the arguments of those who oppose the kingdom without stating those argument in their most compelling form to respond? When I restate these arguments, I find that people often think I am raising them for the first time (and sometimes I admit to looking for or creating a more compelling version of the contra-argument so that I practice of the rule of charity).

    The most overrated book in LDS history is Mormon Doctrine in my view. It pontificated without first looking to see what LDS actually believe or what it asserts was really sustainable — and it ignored the best scholarship and knowledge available. I believe that McConkie truly believed that if he thought it was true, it was established LDS doctrine (at least at the time he wrote it — he mellowed over time like most of us). The second most overreated book is Brodies No Man Knows. To mistake her psycho-biography of a man she didn’t begin to fathom for anything like reliable history would be a grand mistake.

  25. Jack on April 8, 2005 at 7:07 pm

    Lectures on Faith.

  26. Lorin Hansen on April 8, 2005 at 8:16 pm

    Blake,

    I share your feelings. I think the present is more enlightened at least in one sense, in that scholars who often may be few and scattered can now more easily share thoughts and information through the miracles of the computer and the internet. A community develops that is self sustaining and not dependent on or requiring official sanction. It gives members a way to serve God and make a contribution, whether or not everyone even understands what they are trying to do. But from what has happened in the past, we should always remember to be charitable. As the saying goes: There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, it is sometimes hard to know which of us ought to reform the rest of us.

    Along with your statement that “Gospel Doctrine” is overrated, I would have to add that the EOM has to be among of the most underrated books. My candidate for an overrated book is “He Walked the Americas.” Perhaps “the most embarassing book” would be a better way to rate it. It is not by a Mormon, but I have seen it for so long in LDS bookstores over the years that it must be very popular. There is no documentation in the book, and not a shred of evidence that it is anything but a complete fabrication. It probably isn’t a complete fabrication, but Mormons should be more discriminating and not so eager to be swept up.

  27. Ivan Wolfe on April 8, 2005 at 9:00 pm

    Lorin –

    But it [He Walked the Americas] has very nice pictures.

    From reading it (I read it because my dad loves it and asked me to read it), I gather the author was Catholic and it was written for Catholics. But I agree, it is very overrated in LDS circles.

    But, it is very pretty to look at. ;-)

  28. Jettboy on October 24, 2005 at 10:02 pm

    I think Mormon Intellectual writing itself is over-rated, period. There was a reason most of those people were chastised, and I agree with those reasons. I think that Mormon Doctrine is actually under-rated by those who are Intellectual. Why? Because, like it or not, it defined true Mormonism at its spiritual (rather than intellectual) core. I hope it continues to be the great work that it is, if for no other reason than to continue and tick people off who deserve to be chastised for their too much thinking and not enough spiritualizing ways. I am not saying it is perfect, and certainly isn’t Scripture itself. However, I believe it comes closer to the theology of Joseph Smith and the early believing saints than any Mcmurrin (who should have been exed), Bennion, and Hunsaker. Let them have the praise of the world, I will take McConkie’s fallible testimony any day.

  29. Julie in Austin on October 24, 2005 at 10:27 pm

    Jettboy,

    If you haven’t already, you should be sure to read the section on the Mormon Doctrine controversy in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.

  30. Jettboy on October 25, 2005 at 9:59 am

    Julie, I am pretty familiar with the contraversy. I think it was a contest between orthodoxy and anarchy. The winner was orthodoxy, and that is fine by me. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn’t a mainline liberal Protestant church. However, to be perfectly honest, I think Joseph Smith might have said “a curse on both your houses.”