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.