The Books to Be Written

March 2, 2004 | 29 comments
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Let’s see if we can start a discussion that doesn’t revolve around homosexuality and same sex marriage. (What a sexually obsessed bunch we are!) A while back, one commenter suggested that what we needed in addition to a list of “must read” Mormon studies texts is a list of books that haven’t yet been written but should. In the spirit of that question, let me offer some ideas.

Someone needs to write a really thorough study of the history of Mormon theology. There have been a couple of articles and book chapters on this subject, but nothing that really unifies the story and goes into great detail. For example, there isn’t much attempt to put Mormon theological writing in intellectual context. Yet many of the earliest and most influential statements of Mormon belief were put together in the context of debate and polemics. Who were they debating? What were the big issues?

Someone needs to write a really thorough study of Mormon violence. The recent spat of Mountain Meadows books gets at this issue, but again things tend to be under contextualized. Again, there are a couple of good articles and book chapters, but nothing really thorough.

Someone needs to write a legal history of the church in the twentieth century. This would be more interesting that you might think. You don’t have anything as legally dramatic as the anti-polygamy crusades, but the interaction of the church with non-American legal systems (especially those in dictatorial countries like East Germany) could be quite interesting.

Someone needs to write a good history of Mormon political thought. We need to trace out in detail the theology behind the Council of Fifty, the State of Deseret, the various iterrations of millenial expecation and politics, the political retrenchment, etc.

Someone needs to write a thorough intellectual biography of B.H. Roberts. Who was he reading. Which intellectual debates and currents was he following and which was he ignoring. B.H. Roberts’s corpus of Mormon writing is huge and frequently of high quality. However, we know very little about its context in B.H. Roberts intellectual life.

Blake Ostler is currently working on a philosophical exposition of Mormon theology. Since virtually all of the Mormon philosophers that I know disagree with Blake on some if not most issues, I hope that his work will spark some substantive responses. David Paulsen at BYU is also working on the philosophical exposition of Mormn theology. (His Ph.D. dissertation is worth ordering from UMI. I xeroxed a copy of it while I was in law school — awe the heady days of access to Harvar’s libraries! — and it is a lot of fun). Someone needs to embark on similar projects for Mormon philosophy in the area of political theory and philosophy.

Someone needs to do a modern economic history of 19th century Mormonism, particularlly in Deseret. Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom is wonderful. It is economic history in the sense that it discusses economic affairs. However, it has no real economic theory. Apologies to Gordon, but it is very Wisconsin-esque economic history. Someone with a background in economic theory needs to look at this stuff again.

That’s a start. What other books or articles need to be written?

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29 Responses to The Books to Be Written

  1. Julie in Austin on March 2, 2004 at 3:04 pm

    I say this with all respect to anyone who is/was involved in the production of any that are currently out there, but someone needs to write a decent commentary on the Book of Mormon. Every one I have ever seen seemed mired in the realm of (1) ‘proving’ the BoM true (2) seeing how many GAs can be quoted on one page (this has its place, but it isn’t what I am looking for), and (3) basically restates the text. (What’s up with that?) Here is my definition of decent:

    (1) does not include the words ‘geography’ or ‘archealogy’ once. That’s been done.

    (2) incorporates the tools of literary criticism (everything from looking at irony to reader-response, etc.) that have been applied to the Bible for the past 20 years.

    (3) Studies parallels between the Bible and the BoM, not to prove that JS wasn’t cribbing, but to study the *meaning* of the parallels.

    (4) Reads against the grain. I don’t want to hear about how perfect Nephi was. I want to explore his weaknesses (not to glory in them, but to learn from them). Could his youthful excess of zeal have contributed to his brother’s apostasy? Is this something I need to worry about in my own life?

    This thread reminds me of a cartoon that was posted in the bookstore of my grad school: a cashier says, “No, we don’t have that in stock, but I could have it written for you.”

    P.S.–I’d like to read more written by two-thirds-world LDS. What does the Church look like to a native of the Philippines? Or Ghana? What topics do they cover in the mini-classes on Enrichment Night? What kinds of ward activities do they have? What do they think about BYU? How does it feel when virtually all leaders of the Church don’t speak your language?

  2. lyle on March 2, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    1. Maybe Ostler has pre-empted me, but I’m writing a comprehensive book on The “Mormon” Doctrine of Moral Agency.
    2. The LDS Legal History is def. worth doing. I have a list of SCOTUS cases that the LDS Church has been involved in; am compiling a list of lower-level decisions, and am inspired by Nate’s suggestion that LDS Legal missions should be examined for a BYU studies type article. Perhaps a chapter in the larger book?
    3. The 3rd World aspect Julie mentions is also interesting…although I think I’m more interested in seeing old LDS books translated into the different languages and made more widely available.
    4. Why can’t I get an Electronic copy of the Standard Works in any language I want rather than just English?
    5. A book on ways that individual members can turn to for “MICRO” suggestions on how they can build the kingdom of God in their everyday lives (yes, I’m one of those very bad grammar sux people).

  3. Brent on March 2, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    I would like to see a book that anlyzes political and government systems with a gospel overlay addressing the question whether there is a better or best system and what the characteristics of such a system would be. (For instance Alma remarked that having kings would be great, if we always had righteous kings.) Of course, this would also involve significant discussion of the Constitution and our government system as our beliefs in the inspired Constitution are relevant. I also think a discussion of current legal/social/political issues should be included. I have collected various source materials and even kind of outlined such a book, but finding time to write is another matter, especially since I spend all my free time blogging here.

  4. Greg Call on March 2, 2004 at 3:36 pm

    I would love to read a Jamesian “Varieties of Mormon Religious Experience,” which gives first hand accounts of encounters with the divine from a broad spectrum of Saints, and attempts to draw some sociological, or even theological, conclusions.

  5. Dave on March 2, 2004 at 4:31 pm

    Similar to Greg’s comment, I’d like to see work that follows the approach demonstrated in Leone’s Roots of Modern Mormonism, which was more anthropology than sociology but studied actual Mormon communities as a basis for observations on the role of history and theology in Mormon culture.

    Back a bit futher, there is O’Dea’s The Mormons, which in some chapters took a sociological approach to the Church as an institution with a culture of its own.

    For all the LDS history that’s been pumped out, there haven’t been many attempts to use the tools of social science or literary criticism to look as LDS institutions or texts, although I suppose Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon is a step in the literary direction.

  6. Steve Evans on March 2, 2004 at 4:39 pm

    I would also like to see Greg’s book.

    I would also like to see more attempts to flesh out the role of women in the contemporary church, both in terms of leadership hierarchy and in terms of societal roles.

    However, I’m dying to see engaging Mormon literature that makes real social commentary without being heretical or hurtful. Shakespeares of our own, perhaps. It seems that Mormon lit I’ve read is (with a few notable exceptions) either blindly intolerant of LDS dogma or completely sycophantic.

    How about “The Age of Innocence” set along the East Bench in SLC?

    I just can’t take any more Jack Weyland.

  7. William Morris on March 2, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    I, of course, want what Steve describes above. I haven’t read all the decent-quality Mormon lit that’s out there [for instance, I need to read more Margaret Young], but I’ve read some of it. And really, the only thing that I can unequivocally recommend is Bela Petsco’s Nothing Very Important and Other Stories. See my review here: http://www.aml-online.org/reviews/b/B200227.html

    I adore Alan Rex Mitchell’s _Angel of the Danube_ and really liked John Bennion’s _Falling Toward Heaven_, but they are both flawed works, imo. Or not so much that they are seriously flawed as that they don’t quite “do” what I’d like to see be done.

    I’d also add that someone needs to do a literary criticism/history hybrid of the Mormon speculative fiction phenomenon.

    And I also think that there could be a fascinating comparative study done on missionary work and Church growth (and interaction with the society and government) in the various former Warsaw Pact countries — specifically Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, the Ukraine and Russia.

  8. William Morris on March 2, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    Oh yeah, and along the lines of Steve’s Age of Innocence idea — I’d love to read a longish, well-written bildungsroman-type novel that featured a female protaganist — something that traces along college, a mission and either graduate school or a job that required travel.

  9. nathaniel on March 2, 2004 at 6:56 pm

    Julie,

    Have you read “By the Hand of Mormon”? It’s by Terryl Givens (OK, so this could under the heading of “shameless self-promotion”… almost) and I think it really is perhaps the most important book on the Book of Mormon ever published. It has really positive endorsement from Jan Shipps, Richard Bushman, and Harold Bloom. (http://www.richmond.edu/~tgivens/handofmormon.htm)

    One of the reasons the book is so important is that it was published by Oxford University, definately not your average press for works on Mormon studies.

    I’m sure you’ll find your own reviews if you do a google search for it.

    Oh yes, and I think it is an awesome book. I read it from cover to cover in one day.

    When I started piecing together elements of “mormon” philosophy and theology, I thought I was one of the first. Since I started visiting T&S and got on the LDS-Phil list it seems as though these articles are about to start coming out of the woodwork. Of course this makes me a little sad since, as an undergraduate with my primary major as mathematics, I can’t really participate fully in the first stirrings of the discussion about Mormon philosophy, I’m glad that work is being done and I look forward to lending my own thoughts as I can get them arranged.

    Yeah… other than that I basically just avoid Mormon presses altogether.

    -nathaniel

  10. Clark Goble on March 2, 2004 at 7:06 pm

    I’m not sure one ought to write a commentary on the Book of Mormon without mentioning archaeology or geography. The context for any text is *key* for understanding it. To do otherwise is really to adopt pure structuralism within the text or even do some sort of “reader response criticism.” While those approaches are interesting, I think that the issues of context – both historical and textual – are a must for any commentary.

    What I’d actually like to see is a commentary more in line with the Anchor Bible commentaries but based upon the more reasonable of research on the Book of Mormon from the past 20 years or so.

    Hopefully LDS theology and philosophy is experiencing a Renaissance. While I often disagree with Blake (or at least some of the things he finds interesting) I think his work is tremendously important if only to give others something to react to. Right now we just have McMurrin which isn’t that helpful.

  11. clark on March 2, 2004 at 7:39 pm

    Sorry, I shouldn’t have said “right now we just have McMurrin.” Blake’s book The Attributes of God has been out for a year and really is a must read for anyone interested in theology.

  12. Steve Evans on March 2, 2004 at 7:49 pm

    I guess Nate was trying to talk about non-fiction works of mormon studies/philosophy. Didn’t mean to threadjack by talking about “books”.

    I’d really like a book that tells me what I’m supposed to think about the Pearl of Great Price.

  13. Clark Goble on March 2, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    Actually a really good commentary on the Pearl of Great Price which isn’t apologetic in nature is long overdue. But I think that there is still a lot of foundational research that needs done before an adequate one could be done. Right now the debate is still over Egypt. I think that certain 19th century contexts have been left out. (i.e. masonry and hermeticism) I think those movements, even to those who believe the story is ancient, give us a much needed context for how it was understood.

  14. Steve Evans on March 2, 2004 at 8:30 pm

    That’s what I just said! Quit copying me, Clark.

    In all seriousness, however, the Pearl of Great Price is the standard work that receives the shoddiest treatment, IMHO. Like Clark says, it’s all apologetics talking about Egypt. Hugh Nibley’s great, but there’s a clear need to explore the contemporary context for the PGP.

    Ultimately, the goal should be a commentary on the PGP. If that’s too ambitious, I’d settle for a book on Mormon perspectives of creation. Wait a sec, that’s even MORE ambitious (and much of the topic could be verboten outside the temple)…

  15. Julie in Austin on March 2, 2004 at 10:13 pm

    Clark–

    OK, your comment helped me to refine my thinking. The problem that I have is when archaeology/geography are used to ‘prove’ the historicity of the BoM. For example: since this Ancient American story parallels several themes from the BoM, therefore we conclude that the BoM is true.

    I already know the BoM is true, so all of this bores me.

    What would work would be to say: this Ancient American story parallels several themes from the BoM, and this teaches us about . . . provides new insight into . . . emphasizes what Nephi was saying about . . . etc. In other words, adds dimension to our understanding.

    On the other hand, what I just described would be rather speculative. Maybe we should just stick with the reader-response criticism.

  16. Clark Goble on March 3, 2004 at 12:01 am

    Steve – I didn’t mean to pre-empt you, merely agree with you.

    Julie, Brant Gardner has a commentary coming out like that. He is a mesoAmerican specialist and has a lot of it available online.

    http://frontpage2000.nmia.com/~nahualli/

    He’s very critical of a lot of apologetics as well. You might find his stuff interesting.

  17. Julie in Austin on March 3, 2004 at 12:54 am

    I have been using Brant’s commentary occasionally. While he accomplishes something useful with his ‘multi-dimensional’ approach, I would rather have depth than breadth.

  18. Clark Goble on March 3, 2004 at 12:58 am

    Yes, that is definitely his weakness. He is aiming at the general populace and so his text is somewhat superficial and often discussing things that often seem self-evident. Still, I think that constitutes the majority of commentaries. And I think the approach he offers is important. But I do agree that something like the Anchor Bible commentaries would be very well received.

  19. Clark Goble on March 3, 2004 at 1:40 am

    Just to clarify that last comment. I don’t mean that as a negative on what Brant did. Rather that if you are already reasonably well read on Mormon studies and read your scriptures regularly you may be somewhat frustrated with the commentary. What I see missing is a more technical commentary aimed at informed readers rather than the regular members.

  20. Grasshopper on March 3, 2004 at 2:40 am

    I’d like to see a good book on inactivity and leaving the Church, including the effect of anti-Mormon influences. I don’t think we have a really good understanding of what is really happening there.

    I’d also like to see a book studying the manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit in the Church since Joseph Smith’s time.

    I’d be interested in a study of the lives of LDS polygamists whose plural marriages were performed prior to the 1900 and continued well into the 20th century.

    I’d love to see a Book of Mormon “language map” analogous to Sorenson’s “Mormon’s Map” based on internal evidences and implications regarding languages used by Book of Mormon peoples.

  21. brayden on March 3, 2004 at 10:59 am

    I’d like to see an in-depth history of BYU. In particular I want to know how its mission evolved and how its administrative practices became institutionalized.

  22. Nate Oman on March 3, 2004 at 11:38 am

    Brayden: There have been two histories of BYU written — can’t remember the titles — one by BYU Press and one by Signature Books.

    Grasshopper: A while back Signature published a book called _Leaving the Fold_ which is a series of personal vingettes about high profile Mormons who have left the church.

  23. brayden on March 3, 2004 at 12:57 pm

    Nate – cool, I’ll have to look those up someday. I’d be interested in a more modern history. There were some interesting changes that took place when Bateman became president, some of which are now being reversed.

  24. Julie in Austin on March 3, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    Grasshopper–

    I think ‘A Mormon Mother’ fits your bill about polygamists.

  25. Gary Cooper on March 3, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    I would love to see a book that explores the nature, reality, and problem of Evil from an LDS viewpoint. We bring some rather interesting new perspectives to the religious table on this subject, especially our beliefs (and the speculations that have derived from them over the years) concerning Agency, Opposition, the identity of Satan, the role of secret combinations, Sons of Perdition, etc. Such a work such be both broad as well as quite deep, and would be a pretty hefty task. It could certainly incorporate plenty of humor (LDS speculations certainly can be funny), but a lot of serious philosophy. My own take is that LDS theology does not “write off” the “wicked” to damnation quite as easily as other Christians often do, but at the same time we have an appreciation for Evil that portrays it as much darker and insidious than the cartoon caricature of Satan I grew up with as a Southern Baptist. It could also incorporate, although with some trepidation, our belief in the reality of actual encounters with evil spirits (something many of my Protestant friends either refuse to believe in at all, or they see it everywhere.)

  26. Kristine on March 3, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    Julie, Everyone,

    What do you think of Richard Rust’s _Feasting on the Word_? I like the emphasis on literary themes and tropes, although I think a better book using this approach could be written.

    Another book that needs to be redone is O. Kendall White’s _Mormon Neo-orthodoxy_. I think its thesis is really important, but it turns out not to be a really good book–too much emphasis on BYU profs. writings, not enough consideration of the cultural production of LDS belief, and uneven argumentation throughout.

  27. Julie in Austin on March 3, 2004 at 9:36 pm

    I have *tried* to like Feasting on the Word, honestly I have. But I just can’t. Perhaps it is because of background: when I see what non-LDS are able to accomplish with tools of literary criticism (Let the Reader Understand–which is about the Gospel of Mark–is a good example), I feel that FotW alternates between introducing literary terms and reciting the BoM text without actually *analyzing*.

  28. Kristine on March 3, 2004 at 9:50 pm

    Julie–amen. I should have said, “I like the *idea* of a literary approach; it doesn’t really succeed in Rust’s book.” If only we could get Frank Kermode and Robert Alter to do the Book of Mormon!

  29. Julie in Austin on March 3, 2004 at 11:29 pm

    Kristine–

    yep. What I like most about literary crit is that you can actually use it in a Church classroom, keep people interested and thinking, and accomplish something spiritual. Try doing *that* with, say, redaction criticism.

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