Book Review: Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America

July 2, 2006 | 13 comments
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Today I abandon my personal policy of only writing book reviews that are, on balance, positive.

I observed this policy because (1) I’ve written a book and I’d much rather have someone call my children ugly and stupid than criticize my book and (2) Mormon Studies is a small world. But I feel compelled to share with you some titles that I have encountered recently that I cannot recommend. I started writing book reviews because I wanted to fill a gap; there just aren’t that many sources out there for reviews of LDS books. But I suppose that knowing which ones I didn’t like is as useful to potential readers as knowing which ones I did. Also, I was concerned that readers might begin to think that I was the Shiny Happy Reader Who Loves Everything. I don’t, and I want to be sure that you know that when I say I love something (see here and here), I mean it. So, with apologies to their authors, thus begins three days of posts on books that I don’t necessarily recommend:

Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America by Claudia Bushman.

I believe this book is meant to be read in an Intro to American Religions class or used for research at the undergraduate level. Bushman has done an admirable job by eschewing the dry prose that one expects from a ‘textbook’ in favor of a storyteller’s approach. This doesn’t mean her approach is flawless, however. Bushman makes several statements that might be good debate material for Mormon intellectuals, but don’t stand on their own as unsubstantianted, unnuanced statements in a work intended for nonspecialists. For example, she constrasts “the basic split between the mystical religion of magic and folklore” with “the rational world of college-educated members.” Similarly, she notes that “speakers in local wards have great freedom, [while] those who speak or write to wider audiences are carefully scrutinized.” (I wouldn’t claim that either statement is necessarily false,but rather that they are a lot more complicated than that.) I also question her choice of material: Do Orrin Hatch’s mezuzah and David Brian Mitchell really belong at the beginning of a chapter on the church’s basic beliefs?

More serious than her own choices, however, are those made by her editor and publisher. I think they let her down. Here’s the first quote from the back cover:

“A welcome alternative to the Mormon blogs that only praise or only condemn this fascinating church, Contemporary Mormonism is friendly, objective, probing and very, very informative. Claudia Bushman has done us all a great service.” –Carol Lynn Pearson

Well, since you are reading a Mormon blog, you know how jaw-droppingly incorrect that statement is, so I won’t belabour the point. Unfortunately, several similar slips mar the text. The book is obviously written for nonmembers, but terms including correlation and family home evening are mentioned but not defined. Page 4 features a restatement of statistics that had already been mentioned in the text. Perhaps most surprising was the frequency with which typographical errors appeared in the few chapters that I read.

There is a real need for works sympathetic to the Church to be available to students of all ages, but this text is problematic on several fronts. A better alternative is The Latter-day Saint Experience in America.

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13 Responses to Book Review: Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America

  1. Seth R. on July 2, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    I’m not sure what Pearson meant. Did she mean:

    a. a blog like T&S, as a whole, is critical of the Church, or alternatively, that T&S, as a whole is posititive about the Church?

    b. that posts on T&S are either condemning or praising, but never in-between? Or

    c. that when I, as a participant, post a response here, my comments are either condemning or praising, but never in between?

    So which one is it? I’d like to know exactly what target she is shooting at before venturing an opinion on whether she’s hitting it on the nose, or simply full of it.

  2. Mark Butler on July 2, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    I understand her position to be that LDS-oriented web logs / web sites are predominantly one-sided either in favor of or against the position of the Church, referring to the numerous anti-LDS websites in particular, and implicitly accusing most others to be perhaps organs of the party line.

  3. Kimball L. Hunt on July 2, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    Well: ‘IF’ Pearson’s not even referring to independents, maybe her “only praise” blogs would be officially sponsored (R there any?) and her “only criticize” blogs, ex-Mo?

  4. manaen on July 3, 2006 at 2:04 am

    OK, it’s late, I’m commenting without letting this simmer for a while, and I’m not very focused at the moment — but I take “A welcome alternative to the Mormon blogs that only praise or only condemn” to mean that the book is a welcome altenative the those LDS blogs which only praise or condemn, not to the other LDS blogs, like T&S, that, like the book, are more balanced. What am I missing?

  5. Mark Butler on July 3, 2006 at 2:15 am

    I think that is a good point, manean. One problem is the “the” in that statement weakens it, as if it was added after the fact, because if Mormon-oriented weblogs are acceptable by and large, there is little need for a welcome alternative to them.

  6. TrailerTrash on July 3, 2006 at 8:18 am

    I just don’t understand what a book about Mormonism has anything to do with Mormon blogs. What is the point of the comparison at all? Are the blogs competing with this book for space in the classroom? Doesn’t everyone already know that *if you are looking for a book that surveys contemporary Mormonism,* a book for actually written on this topic is better than a blog which is not written on this topic?

  7. Jonathan Green on July 3, 2006 at 10:03 am

    Julie, I’m enjoying your contributions to negativity week. It’s important work; calling for better contributions to the world of Mormon letters means we also have to acknowledge when a book doesn’t quite get the job done. In your review of An Advocate for Women, it’s clear that there’s a major structural problem with the book. It’s not quite as clear with Contemporary Mormonism. Would you say that the book mostly succeeds in what it sets out to do, although it has some rough edges and isn’t as strong as ?

  8. Julie M. Smith on July 3, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Yes, Jonathan Green, I would agree that _Advocate_’s problems are primarily structural while _Contemporary_’s problems are primarily with (1) odd content choice and (2) poor editing.

  9. Flummux on July 3, 2006 at 5:03 pm

    Julie: I am disappointed in your “review” of several chapters of this book. I don’t think you give the book a fair shake. You say at the outset that Bushman does an “admirable job” at story telling, but then give no examples. Instead you launch almost immediately into what you do not like in the book, illustrating with several questionable lines and juxtapositions, as though they are representative, without telling us whether they in fact represent form a pattern found throughout the book as a whole. Your one block quote is Pearson’s blurb, as though Bushman has control of that business, and a jab about the editing. Joseph Smith had trouble spelling; that must mean he had nothing important to say.

    At the very least I would have thought that the most reasonable tack to take, if you don’t care to read the book, would be to review this leader in Mormon women’s history–the cofounder of Exponent II, editor of the book that launched the subfield, Mormon Sisters–on her own best turf, her chapter on women, especially given your own academic insterests. But unfortunately that chapter is invisible here. And so are answers to the most fundamental questions: What was Bushman trying to do in the book? What does the book do that others have not? Is there anything here worth learning? Answers to these questions begin to tell why “admirable” books are worth reviewing.

  10. Julie M. Smith on July 3, 2006 at 5:57 pm

    Flummux:

    (1) I didn’t dwell on the positive aspects of storytelling because they don’t compensate for the weaknesses in the book.

    (2) As Jim so cogently argued on the other book review thread, the inability to finish a book due to its flaws says a lot, so I do feel that as long as I am upfront about the fact that I didn’t read the entire book, I am still entitled to review what I did read, with an eye to why I didn’t finish it. So I have no idea if the first few chapters are representative, but they are so deeply flawed that I would be rather shocked if the rest of the book were markedly different.

    (3) I made it clear in the review that I didn’t hold Bushman accountable for the editing or the jacket blurb (“More serious than her own choices, however, are those made by her editor and publisher. I think they let her down.”), but they nonetheless are part of the book and weigh in to my review. The back cover blurb suggests that the book was put together by people who did not understand what they were editing/packaging/promoting.

    (4) “Joseph Smith had trouble spelling; that must mean he had nothing important to say.” This is hardly fair; I wouldn’t judge JS by 21st century standards any more than I would judge a book with a 21st century publication date by the standards of the 19th century. The editing errors contribute to the impression that something was either hasty or careless about this production.

    (5) My goal was to review the book, not Claudia Bushman. If this were a review of her, you would have read a glowingly positive post.

    To sum: you appear to have a horse in this race–defending Bushman. That is a laudable goal because she is a great woman, but this book is not representative of her work and to defend the book based on its authorship would be dishonest.

  11. Flummux on July 4, 2006 at 11:04 am

    “You appear to have a horse in this race–defending Bushman. That is a laudable goal…”

    Julie. Read my comment again. I am defending the right for someone’s ideas to be taken seriously, the notion that every piece of writing has some logic or rationality or method to it, especially if the writer has a track record. That is quite different than defending a person. I might have written the same post about your review of Madsen’s Emmeline B. Wells. (Indeed, I set out to do that very thing yesterday, but gave up after a few sentences.) In that review, you have basically two things to say: the division between public and private doesn’t work for you, and the writing is boring. Okay, fine, there are structural or stylistic problems, but looking beyond those problems, what is Madsen trying to do in the book. What about Wells’s public life?

    All I am asking is for you to show a little empathy, imagine the world of the author, and enter it. Wouldn’t you expect the same of someone reviewing your own book? Give us an argument rather than a cocktail party opinion.

  12. Jonathan Green on July 4, 2006 at 2:42 pm

    Flummux, I think you’re setting the bar impossibly high for writing negative reviews. Readers owe authors nothing–not their time, not their attention, not empathy, nothing–and it’s important for authors and potential authors to remember that. If a book doesn’t deliver what it promises, a short review only needs to point out why the book falls short.

    But if you have read a book that Julie has reviewed and would like to share your own reactions, I don’t think anyone would mind. Rather than bugging Julie to write something that you wish she would have written, write it yourself and publish it, here or elsewhere. I can’t speak for Julie, but I think diversity of opinion is a good thing in book reviews.

  13. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 4, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    I just don’t understand what a book about Mormonism has anything to do with Mormon blogs

    Honestly, I still like Pearson, but less after reading the quote that provoked that comment. I only hope the quote was butchered by editors. Sigh.