Book Review: A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning: A Mormon Autobiography

July 4, 2006 | 30 comments
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A Rascal By Nature, A Christian by Yearning: A Mormon Autobiography by Levi Peterson.

Peterson writes: “I don’t recall weighing whether ther might be an audience for my life’s story. I simply wanted to write it.” And thus the problem: there are strands of interesting material here for several different books (a generic autobiography, a psychobiography, an intellectual biography, a writer’s history, a wilderness journal) that aren’t integrated. Readers interested in the background to his fiction will be at least as irritated by irrelevant material as they are thrilled by his lengthy reflections on his work, while readers looking for insights into his “vexed and vexing relationship with Mormonism” may tear their hair out over passages like this one:

I felt sharply the deep duplicity of my life–my possession of distinctly different personas in conservative and liberal environments, and wondered again how I could bridge the two worlds without being insane, and feeling again it is precisely because I do bridge them that I’m not insane.

And then, after nothing more than a paragraph break, this:

In May 1994 I bought a new electric-blue Ford Ranger pickup with a sluggish four-cylinder engine and a five-speed conventional transmission. As it turned out, I would own this vehicle for ten years to the day. The vinyl cover on the bench seat cracked early . . .

I doubt that I’m the only reader who wishes that the statement about conflicting personas had gotten a little more development even at the cost of slighting the next segment of Peterson’s automotive history. His curious relationship with the institutional church (he was devastated at the thought of excommunication but likes coffee “mostly because it is a convenient sin. It is a very handy, inexpensive way to stay out of harmony with your church.”) is something that I kept patiently waiting for him to explore in some detail, but he never did. He does make several snide-sounding comments about the Church. On the sacrament prayers: “Apparently, God will not sanctify the tokens of redemption unless you get the words just right.” On eternity with his non-LDS wife: “God will not be so petty and mean-spirited as to deny those who have loved each other in mortality to continue their love in immortality. It is love that sanctifies and seals a relationship, not a ritual conducted before an altar made by human beings.” While these sentiments deserve comment on quite a few levels, I’ll restrict myself to the irony: for someone who sees himself as a ‘loyal dissenter’ ministering to the marginalia of Mormonism, he must realize how grossly unsatisfactory two sentences are for dismissing the capstone of Mormon theology. Some readers will also be put off by the depth of his exploration of his sexual history, although he does offer an interesting apologia for this near the end of the book. Nonetheless, Peterson is a fabulous storyteller who made me actually care about his mother’s tumultuous first marriage and his ancestral connection to Mormon history. For the reader who can tolerate unexplored caves (“a fierce, proud grief lies at the core of the Mormon identity, cemented there by the hardships, smothered aspirations, and truncated lives of our pioneer ancestors”), this will be an interesting book. But for those who want more fleshing out, this will be a frustrating read.

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30 Responses to Book Review: A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning: A Mormon Autobiography

  1. Clair on July 4, 2006 at 10:46 am

    …but likes coffee “mostly because it is a convenient sin. It is a very handy, inexpensive way to stay out of harmony with your church.â€?)

    The irony of that thought, which isn’t unique to Peterson, always makes me smile. In that one thing, his actions are controlled by the Church as much in his carefully chosen disobedience as are those of any fastidiously obedient member. If the church is agin’ it, he’s fer it. We might presume that a change in church doctrine to encourage coffee drinking would lead him to quit. Like some people come fashionably late to a party, some are fashionably independent. Cute. Harmless. Vain.

  2. A Nonny Mouse on July 4, 2006 at 11:43 am

    Like some people come fashionably late to a party, some are fashionably independent. Cute. Harmless. Vain.

    Can I add “Lame.” to that? Oh, the plight of the Mormon intellectual. So difficult, so insanity building as he strives to be both liberal and conservative. Sounds like Levi Peterson has led a hard life.

  3. Costanza on July 4, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the review Julie. I think I will have to pass on this one.

  4. annegb on July 4, 2006 at 2:43 pm

    I agree with you, Julie, it’s sort of a hodge-podge of a book. I find it delightfully descriptive and validating, however.

    I found the same hodge-podge when I tried to read Hugh Nibley. What’s the dif?

    I don’t think it would hurt for you guys to have him on when you ask all those questions of people and have him answer the questions. For instance, why bother to pick a sin if you generally don’t agree with Mormon life? Why not sin in general, take up red wine and cigars? Why care if you bless your grandson? He obviously believes and cares, but faces that awful choice many of us make between the hypocrisy of those around us and the purity of the atonement. IMHO. In that vein, aren’t we all somewhat hypocritical?

    I was very interested in how his novels took shape. I didn’t realize so much went into story telling.

    I haven’t finished the book yet. I’ll be back (me channeling Arnold yet again). I’ll probably read it during the boring parts in church. I have a rule, it’s okay if the writers are members of the church.

    And even if this book doesn’t find a wide readership among Mormons, I’m sure his family will enjoy reading it. I’d like to have something like that written by my parents exposing themselves so honestly, if unevenly.

  5. elizabeth on July 4, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    Julie
    I do not know who Levi Peterson is,and I totally depend on your bookrevieuw to write my commemt.

    But I do think I agree with Levi that the first priority is to write for yourself. But I understand that as a reader you can be left with a lot of questions.

    Fromt he revieuw I understand that Levi is not active in the lds church.

    Well at this moment of my live I am not active either but still I think as a mormon.
    And I think that is something that cannot be washed away in a few years or ever.
    Although I believe that God willl look at peoples heart and intentions then rather if they are sealed in a lds temple, I do still find my self thinking about living together with my spouse with God and with my child. That is mormon thinking.

    I am not saying here that anybody is wrong just trying to understand why, Levi drinks coffee just because it is the easy way to be a rebel.
    If he would really be deprogrammed of his mormon thinking, then he would just drink his coffee and excpet is as normal.

    I think I also have the benefit that I was a convert to the church, so I did devallop certain morals etc long before I became a member and keep these things because they are a part of me and not a part of any church.

    Anyway afther summer is over I will sign up for a writing course : learning to write autobiografie.
    If you would be able to read Dutch I would love for you to revieuw it.

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  6. Kimball L. Hunt on July 4, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    A Nonny Mouse, re your “Ah the plight of the Mormon intellectual”:

    Autobiography’s an interesting form.

    Mark Twain stretches a few truths in Life on the Mississippi. Does he really talk about his inner motivations and deconstruct his inner contradictions and conflicting motivations? Or is whatever Twain writes about himself more grist in the mill of folks trying to come to their own conclusions about the same, then?

    Parts of Joseph’s Smith’s autobiographical writings are canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. Yet historians have a field day with them. Does Joseph reveal ALL of his contradictions and conflicting motivations for his readers, layin’ them all out flat? Or does he instead successfully advocate for his particular world view?

    My own view is that whenever we humans deal with judging good and evil — or even good and bad TASTE, lol — we fall back on this universal: we intensely dislike things we see as possible weaknesses in ourselves. For example, the person who’s the most involved in Apologia usually is completely fascinated by Wider learning, and so perhaps feels, what?, anxiety or irritation when and if such learning may not completely buttress their setpoints of Faith? Likewise, cultural taste makers judge tastes ever by double standards. In the case of faithful members of the Church, their tastes are goin’ ‘a countenance, even prefer, “nuancing” stuff as is written by their Good cultural heroes to protect the faith of the innocents, while they wonder about the weird self-preserving, defensively-stanced-or-whatever obfuscations of the complications that make up human personalities, when the same is having to do with Bad folks who are cultural anti-heroes due to their having thought to criticize their Faith.

    Barnabas and James thought Paul nuts ‘caus Paul didn’t care for kosher; yet Paul forcefully advocated his notion in return about Jesus’s not being all about kosher but about A Higher Law. And you could almost look at it as that . . . since these earlier Messianists more and more found themselves being excommunicated or disfellowshipped from normative, Talmudic(-to-be lol) Judaism in any case, they figured common cause with Paul would be better than to have no friends anywhere.

    “Ah the plight of the intellectual.”

    It’s funny I understand exactly what you mean by that statement. But just look at it, isn’t it funny that I DO? lol. (Annunciating clearly): “The pl-ight of the in-tellec-tual” . . .

    The plight of thinkers is this: That Spinoza was exed and disfellowshipped from othodox Judaism. That Joseph Smith and company were thought heterodox in their day. That the apparently gifted novelist (who I haven’t read) Peterson who is Mormon is a complicated character who drinks coffee and critiques the Church. Shrugs. Big deal. Tell me instead whether his story challenges, makes one think, is full of the complicated detritus that always is there when somebody isn’t too self-consciously editing one’s own life to hagiographically conform to whatever preconceived notions of heroism! . . . .

  7. Kimball L. Hunt on July 4, 2006 at 4:42 pm

    I should’ve written how “it’s funny to think that a ‘MORMON intellectual’ . . . must necessarily suffer some plight.” But I was trying to generalize from specifically Mormon to generically beholden to any worldview. So when I got to back to A Nonny Mouse’s “Mormon intellectual” quote, I left out “Mormon” ( . . . however resulting in my slipping so far into my ideolect as to be inconprehensible!)

    WHICH LEADS me to proclaim: “Ah, the plight of my idiocy!”

  8. Mark Butler on July 4, 2006 at 6:51 pm

    Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.
    (D&C 59:42)

    So if God remembers our sins no more, why should we try to, or indeed propagate the details to the whole world, unless they are particularly germane to the story?

  9. Kimball L. Hunt on July 4, 2006 at 7:58 pm

    My style of exposition’s so lazy — “aye/ee”, I simply saying things whichever way instead of considering how my hearer will experience them (As isn’t what’s the true “art” of any art to develop the talent to be able to project oneself OUTSIDE of oneself to observe how one’s art is be observed?) — I’m going to start over and restate what I’m saying above from scratch, OK?

    The quasi-devout member of “The Church of Jesus Christ” Peterson’s autobiography leaves many issues unexplored, grounded, explained regarding his conflicted and complicated relationship with his faith; however, a lot of what Peterson does fill in, in it, about its cultural byways is supurb — as should be expected, the exceptional story teller he is. (Or at least this is my gloss of J. — um, tho not /J/oseph — Smith’s review of his book.)

    Then A Nonny Mouse comments to Clair about about what a lame-bo Peterson is, adding that Mormon intellectuals (Which, although A Nonny Mouse offers nuanced opinions in print, apparently is NOT?) have such a hard row to maintain some kind of ongoing accomodation with their faith culture as their independence of thought results in their growing more and more out of sync with it.

    And now’s MY turn to pipe in (incidentally, marvelling to myself — before I even start typing — how ironic it is that the faithful’s kneejerk admissions are that the words /intellectual/ and /faithful member/ must necessarily be relegated as forever disjuct!)

    However, first, with regard to Smith’s review, I note that peoples’ autobiographies rarely solve all such riddles of self-awareness Smith is talking about — that is, I suppose, unless done by individuals (such as devotees or philosophers?) whose business has been all about their fully explaining just such self-perceptions. Instead what you usually get is “more of the same” concerning whatever setpieces and motiffs the author has chosen to focus on throughout his life, whatever these might be.

    Then, with my frenetically (perhaps?) jumping over to whether Peterson’s autobiography should be considered “good” or “bad,” I make the observation of how people’s perceptions are psychologically driven by their pushing things labeled as forbidden away and clinging to things labeled as acceptable — my implying that the extent to which Peterson’s work might be pushed away since his “faith setting” is forbidden to be emulated, such a rationale should be put out there so that hearers can take this factor into account as they juggle the other merits to the book that are being discussed.

    In the present case what commenters are looking askance at is Peterson’s use of coffee, and this despite his wanting to remain in full fellowship in the Church! So: I go on a riff about someone viewed as a cultural hero in Christianity, Paul’s, advocacy of being non-kosher and in general note how other strongly opinioned individuals in general, even those regarded in some context as cultural heroes, have often subverted aspects of their place and times’ normative status quo.

    Thus: Should observations made by someone who is “intellectual” be necessarily labeled by the faithful as something FORBIDDEN to be considered? Or can they be considered on merits aside from those of whether they directly support or detract from a position of faith? If Peterson (Joyce, anybody) is not a kosher, does he still have something to say which might be worth listening to? So lets not dwell TOO much on this narrow issue?

    To any who’ve skimmed this, thanks for indulging my experiment at being “clearer”???!

    “Big love,” xox! — Kimball

  10. A Nonny Mouse on July 4, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    how ironic it is that the faithful’s kneejerk admissions are that the words /intellectual/ and /faithful member/ must necessarily be relegated as forever disjuct(sic)!

    Kimball, Have you ever seen hopeisemo.com?

    It makes a great mock of the “Emo kids” who are abounding nowadays. They’re perenially sad because life is so hard and so sad and nobody else gets it or understands them. They’re also, incredibly, incredibly pretentious and lame, and they remind very me of much of the sort of sentiment that Levi Peterson’s comment that coffee “is a very handy, inexpensive way to stay out of harmony with your church” espouses.

    It’s not that I think “faithful” and “intellectual” are disjunct at all. In fact, I think quite the opposite. I just don’t think that you should blame your refusal to live the faith of which you claim to be a part on your intellectual superiority. That’s just lame. (And, quite frankly, I think it’s a large part of what underlies Dialogues flagging readership and energy…).

  11. elizabeth on July 5, 2006 at 7:20 am

    I hear alot of condemanation in some blogs

    did any of you write a autobiography?
    did any of you write a story?

    Look maybe it is not our style of live but at least Levi is telling the truth about his live. And no matter how you feel about it , he did not write the book for you !!!!

    Elizabeth ( from HOlland)

  12. annegb on July 5, 2006 at 9:49 am

    #9 I like your term “quasi-devout.” I think it fits a lot of us. Probably me, for sure.

    I’m newly converted to Levi Peterson, so I sound a little born again, which I don’t apologize for. But I find him refreshingly honest and funny and also faithful to a God he doesn’t necessarily think fits the Mormon image of perfection.

    I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong Julie) Julie was criticizing his stance on religion, it was his style of writing which can be difficult to navigate. His other books, his fiction, are not that way. They tell a good story (although I have a different ending, even a sequel, to Aspen Murooney) without digression or confusion.

    His autobiography takes serious concentration and once in awhile a “huh?” as he tends to wander in his pondering. Like I said, I find it delightful, but then, I’m not really into it yet. He’s breaking rules. Kimball, I suggest you read it and then decide for yourself.

    Personally, I love the fact that he doesn’t take himself or religion too seriously, although I was touched at his chagrin and resentment when he had to ask the bishop if it was okay for him to bless his grandchild. (I could have this a little skeewampus, maybe it was just join the circle).

    I feel the same way. I think we take ourselves way too seriously, yet I don’t want to be left out or condemned. I want it all. I am so sick of contorting my brain into knots trying to be something I’m not while abusing myself for it. So I like the way Levi writes about his Mormon experience.

    and again, Julie’s right. But it doesn’t matter to those of us who enjoy reading Levi Peterson. Julie, don’t you think he writes like Hugh Nibley in this? I don’t mean content, I mean style. Hugh Nibley is all over the planet and his paragraphs are pages long and I have a really hard time following him.

  13. Julie M. Smith on July 5, 2006 at 11:16 am

    “I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong Julie) Julie was criticizing his stance on religion, it was his style of writing which can be difficult to navigate.”

    You are right–that’s a subject for a different post. I’m simply stating this: if you subtitle a book “A Mormon Autobiography” and you hold a position radically different from mainstream Mormonism, you have set up the expectation that you will explore your Mormonness in some depth, and he never does this.

  14. annegb on July 5, 2006 at 11:23 am

    I haven’t gotten that far. But if you read The Backslider, you get a pretty good idea where he stands, I think.

  15. elizabeth on July 5, 2006 at 3:03 pm

    Anneg and Julie I am sorry but was not commeting on any of you. I should use names the next time I respond.

    Sorry

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  16. annegb on July 5, 2006 at 3:28 pm

    Oh, I thought your comments were good, Elizabeth. Without context since you haven’t read it, but with merit. I’ve gotten into memoirs lately and they are all a little uneven. I think honesty (NOT TOTALLY CORRECT RECOLLECTION) is important. I think James Frey was honest, but not totally correct. Nor do I care.

    Not to threadjack. But on memoirs I think I’m sort of easy because I enjoy them. Just gullible.

  17. A Nonny Mouse on July 5, 2006 at 3:28 pm

    Annegb: what do you recommend as an introduction to Levi Peterson’s fiction?
    The Backslider or Aspen Marooney or something else?

  18. annegb on July 6, 2006 at 1:50 am

    Well, have you read his books? They just have a totally unique flavor to them that I find hard to explain. For instance, in one, I can’t remember which one, I think it was the short stories, he talks about saying something to his wife like “let’s fire up the tractor and bale some hay” referring to sex.

    He could be an acquired taste is what I’m saying. Or maybe I have a sick mind. What would you say? It would depend on the person. I might want to start an innocent off easy LOL.

    I sort of suck at recommending books to people because I often forget there’s cussing and other stuff because I didn’t notice it and then women in church give me strange looks.

    I love his description of Cowboy Jesus in The Backslider. I love that he decides that Jesus is kind. I need all the reminding I can get on that score. I was thinking about his title, it reflects ambivalence, I think. I feel the same way a lot of time. I want to be a Christian, I want to be good, I want to do right, but I am just not naturally pure.

    I usually make a disclaimer when I recommend books to members of the church or devout members of other faiths and warn them they might look at me differently after they read it. It’s a total natural high when they like the book, when they get it the same way I got it. But there is a different type of satisfaction in discussing the disagreements as well, for me. It’s so intriguing what strikes each of us.

  19. Kimball L. Hunt on July 6, 2006 at 2:32 am

    M/e (M? M/lle?) Mouse: Looks like it’d be an interesting link! Ah, yes, what are we to do with po-mo’s. (Post moderns. Not necessarily post-Mormons.)

  20. elizabeth on July 6, 2006 at 5:14 am

    hey Kimball
    Am I a po-mo ?
    hahahhaha

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  21. Amethyst on July 6, 2006 at 5:45 am

    I read lots of Levi Peterson when I was a young adult, and loved every page. I was delighted to find a “Mormon” author who did not moralize, over-editorialize or pander to the least common denominator. He was my intellictual answer to Jack Weyland and Shirley Seeley.

    But I was bothered by his temple language and imagery (and I had not yet been). I was fascinated and repulsed by his graphic depictions of masturbation, fornication and castration. I was confused by his semi-other-Christian portrayal of a too-personal Jesus who somehow thought these adulterers and backsliders were A-okay.

    And I was convinced Levi Peterson was inactive, if not excommunicated!

    My, how things change! It’s been 15 years since I seriously read Peterson (and I’ve read everything he’s ever written). I’m now an ex-Mormon, and I have him to thank for some of my current thinking about life and about the Church. I willingly gave up my membership. I never struggled with the same problems his protagonists did–I left the church as a single 30-something virgin, never drank, smoke, swore, was a temple worker–but I realized that the struggles the Peterson characters fought to overcome were products of their Mormonism and had no real bearing in the real world. I realized it was a shame and a burden to consider coffee a sin, to flaggelate oneself over fleeting sexual thoughts, to worry about whether and when one wore garments. I realized Mormonism was turning me into the same kind of looney that his characters were.

    Thanks, Levi!

  22. DavidH on July 6, 2006 at 11:31 am

    I really liked the Backslider as well, and really liked the Cowboy Jesus.

  23. Kimball L. Hunt on July 6, 2006 at 3:04 pm

    Elizabeth:

    Well you’re Mo’. Are you po'(ah)? (poor?)

  24. elizabeth on July 6, 2006 at 4:20 pm

    Kimball
    I am post Mo

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  25. annegb on July 6, 2006 at 6:52 pm

    Amethyst, do you remember the end to The Backslider? He didn’t leave the church, he just knew God wasn’t as hard on him as he was on himself.

  26. Paul Kingery on July 7, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    Dear Julie,

    I would like to invite you to write a short review of a new Christian ebook called Land of Canaan: Ancient Hope for Future Peace. See it free online at http://www.landofcanaan.info and let me know what you think.

    Thanks,

    Paul

  27. annegb on July 11, 2006 at 11:00 am

    I read the first three chapters in church this Sunday (I read weird, I read the front and back cover and then I read the copyright page and the dedications. Then I read the first page, then I read the back page. With this book, I also read the chapter on Aspen Marooney and skimmed, now I’m really reading it) and it seems to me that he’s approaching it in a very organized manner, chronologically. He’s setting up his story. so far. I don’t find him dodging Mormonism, but I’ll keep you posted on the stuff I commented on, but can’t remember where I read it :).

  28. Levi Peterson on July 13, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    I am grateful for Julie’s review and for all the comments so far. I try to listen closely to those who have reason to dislike my writing as well as those like it. They all give me insight into my writing that I didn’t have before. I am asking myself why I included such a multiplicity of themes in my autobiography without giving the reader more warning and orientation through more express transitions. I think the answer is space. I knew the book shouldn’t be too long (as, indeed, some readers are telling me that it is) but I had a compulsion, perhaps misguided, to cover my life to the moment of my last revision of the draft before it was typeset and sent to the printer. I wanted to set my creative work–my fiction–and my essays and scholarly articles into the context of my everyday life. So for the sake of getting more of my general life into the book, I cut back on express transitions.

    As for my relationship with Mormonism, I am a member of the Issaquah Second Ward and attend meetings often enough to be generally known there. I consider the bishop my friend because he and I were hometeaching companions for a long time. I value my membership greatly. I haven’t been blessed with the gift of faith, but I know that the authority of the First Presidency and the Twelve, the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and the prophetic character particularly of Joseph Smith but also of his successors, are crucial to the vitality and continuation of Mormonism.

    Thanks again for your comments. Perhaps I have come aboard this blog site too late to add anything to it, but if any of you would like to ask me questions, I’ll respond.

    Levi

  29. Frank McIntyre on July 13, 2006 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks, Levi, for stopping by and being willing to answer questions. It can be a real help to hear directly from the authro (even though it may be that this thread is old enough to not get any more attention).

  30. Nate Oman on July 13, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    Levi: Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I second Frank’s appreciation of having authors try to join the conversation about reviews of their books. It is one of the things that makes blogging a fun medium.