“Mormonism”: A Perfect Storm

September 30, 2008 | 13 comments
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Library Journal this month ran an interesting article offering a big-picture perspective on the world of LDS and LDS-related publishing, highlighting close to 40 books on doctrine, history, sociology, comparative theology and devotional topics, as well as periodicals, video, and internet resources. The article’s aim is to help librarians choose recent, reliable books about Mormonism, whether they work in a public or small academic library. You can see there are a few classics on the list, as well, that are still in print in recent editions.

The article is interesting for a roundup of quality works and for its explicit and implicit comments on how authorial perspectives can help and hinder public understanding of the Church. It is encouraging to see how many good resources are available, and also to see this topic receive detailed treatment in this national publication. Mainly librarians will read the article, but informing librarians about what books might be appropriate purchases for their libraries can make a big difference in informing the wider public. The web version of the article appears in two parts, a main article and a continuation. The print version is much more attractive, with color images of many of the book covers, etc., but there is some material that only appears on the web due to length constraints.

The Table of Contents page of the print edition accurately notes, “Mormonism has been sensationalized more often than most other religions. These 37 resources, with more on the web, bring perspective to your religion collection.” Fortunately, in recent years we have seen an increasing number of authors able to write about Mormons and Mormonism in a way that both Mormons and non-Mormons find inviting and helpful. This article tries to highlight some of these titles. Believing Mormons may be surprised, however, to see that some of the books that helped define their understanding of the Church are not listed here; in fact, it’s likely that most Mormons won’t have read more than one or two books on the list.

While Mormons have made real progress recently in helping the wider world understand them and overcoming misconceptions, a lot of people remain mostly unaware or misinformed. Mormons often find this frustrating, but it seems to me the primary responsibility falls on us to let ourselves be known in a way that is helpful, easy to understand, and appealing. As Elder Ballard has reminded us recently, our very eagerness to tell people about ourselves sometimes becomes an impediment. Other times we are simply too absorbed in our own Mormon routine to make ourselves accessible to others. For example, you may notice that while the very first work the article recommends is the LDS edition of the scriptures, it does not list specific publication information as for other titles. The authors of the article (one of them is my mother, who has been a librarian for 15 years) were unable to list a specific recommendation because new copies of the LDS edition of the scriptures are not easy to obtain through the standard channels which librarians normally use. The Church offers them in a great variety of sizes, formats (quad, triple, etc.) and colors through Distribution Services or Deseret Book, but the many formats cannot be unambiguously identified by an ISBN, the standard numbering system for books. The LDS quad, for example, as standard as it gets, is only available used on Amazon.

The article invites reflection on a few questions:
What do you think of this list of recommendations?
What books do you wish were on this list that do not exist? or in other words . . .
What more do Mormons need to do to let themselves be better understood?
What issues, events, people, etc. provide the best opportunities for building bridges of understanding or cooperation?
What can Mormons learn about themselves from the way non-Mormons respond to us, or (mis?)describe us?

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13 Responses to “Mormonism”: A Perfect Storm

  1. Craig H. on October 1, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Questions 1 and 2: I’m no expert on Mormon history, but I would add Arrington and Bitton’s The Mormon Experience, plus Tom Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition.

    Questions 3 and 4: Maybe work a little harder to understand others. Then you can speak their language, and understand what matters to them as well. Then maybe you can stop talking past each other and actually communicate, and realize we have more in common with others than we think.

    Question 5: Again, when you’re misdescribed (sic), use it as motivation to understand others correctly—that is, when others describe us we want to be able to recognize ourselves. When we describe others, they should be able to do the same. I don’t know what builds bridges better than that.

  2. Seth R. on October 1, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Was Rough Stone Rolling in there? Or did I just miss it?

  3. Jonovitch on October 1, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Seth (2), Rough Stone Rolling was in there. You did miss it.

    I would add “How Wide the Divide” by Stephen Robinson and Craig Blomberg, since more than a few library patrons with a closet interest in Mormonism would come from an Evangelical (or otherwise traditional/creedal Christian) background. And the Mormons who read it might just learn something about themselves and their other-Christian brothers, too. It’s certainly in my library, and I consider it a must-have in laying out the truth about what Mormons really believe.

    Jon

  4. AHLDuke on October 1, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    I felt like the list was fairly complete. It looks like a couple of commenters of the Library Journal site were upset at the exclusion of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows. From a Mormon’s perspective, the list is extremely friendly, but I wonder how others feel about it. Does it give all sides of the Mormon story, even if some of the works aren’t by Mormon authors?

    I was always impressed by the collection of LDS-related literature in Duke Divinity School’s library. They had a full collection of Dialogue and about three bookcases full of books related to Mormonism. Most of them were friendly to Mormonism, including plenty that were published by the Church. I think some of the anti-Mormon and anti-cult books were in other sections of the library.

    I sense a potential Bloggernacle service project in the making: all of us can make sure that our local libraries (public libraries and university libraries) have current copies of all the Standard Works and a subscription to the Ensign. Maybe you can donate some of your Church-related library if you feel the desire.

  5. Kent Larsen on October 2, 2008 at 6:09 am

    IMO, this is an interesting, but kind of odd list, perhaps because of the orientation of Library Journal or something. For example, there is a clear bias toward recent works over classic works (the barely finished “Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy” is included instead of the classic “Mountain Meadows Massacre” by Juanita Brooks.) There is also a bias toward works that are currently in print and easily available over titles that are out-of-print. The list also doesn’t include any fiction at all (again, apparently because of the focus of Library Journal).

    But other aspects of the list are perplexing. I would have thought that reference works would be given a high priority, but neither the Encyclopedia of Mormonism nor Mormon Doctrine (which was still available, last I looked) are included.

    I was also disappointed at some of the factual errors or misleading statements — dating Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s martyrdom in 1847 instead of 1844 is quite egregious, but also claiming that Deseret Book and Covenant are the two largest LDS publishers without mentioning that they are both owned by the Church is misleading, and the statement that the LDSBA displays “upcoming titles” is technically incorrect, although little known (for whatever reason, retailers at the LDSBA won’t consider titles that haven’t been already printed).

    I think this is a valuable list, in general, but I’d have to call it at least somewhat flawed. Too much is missing.

  6. Kent Larsen on October 2, 2008 at 7:07 am

    “What books do you wish were on this list that do not exist?”

    I have a very long list of works that don’t exist that I think would be very useful, especially to outsiders. Publishing about Mormonism has focused on a few, rather obvious, areas, and neglected many others.

    I’d like to see more books about Mormon culture, for example (Terryl Givens’ People of the Paradox is the only work on culture so far). We also have failed to do much with biography outside of Church Presidents and General Authorities, nor have we looked much at current areas where Mormons are in conflict with others — no current events books unless they directly impact doctrine.

    Its fairly easy to figure out what kinds of books are needed. Just go into a good, full-service bookstore and look at the various subject areas one by one and ask yourself “Does Mormonism have something to say about (the subject)?” and “How does (the subject) effect Mormons?” [You can do the same thing online by going down a list of Amazon.com's subjects.]

    Even in fiction there’s lots of room for expansion. While Mormon literature has been produced in most of the major genres (action, romance, science fiction, westerns, etc.) I have yet to see any Mormon “Chic Lit” to mention a recent genre, nor have I seen any Mormon “cyberpunk,” except for William Morris’ fun short short Sister Watson challenges the Elusieve Decapede.

    Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen many Mormon “who dunnits” or “police procedurals” Why is that?

    Apparently in the LDS market, crime doesn’t pay!!! (sorry, I couldn’t resist.]

  7. Kent Larsen on October 2, 2008 at 7:19 am

    AHLDuke (4) wrote:

    I sense a potential Bloggernacle service project in the making: all of us can make sure that our local libraries (public libraries and university libraries) have current copies of all the Standard Works and a subscription to the Ensign. Maybe you can donate some of your Church-related library if you feel the desire.

    Before you jump on this bandwagon, there are a couple things you should know:

    1. Libraries aren’t always happy to get donations for their collections for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is cataloging costs. It can cost as much or more than the cost of purchasing the book to prepare the catalog entry, add the barcodes and other markings of ownership to the book, and perform the other duties necessary to process a new book for a library collection. When a book is purchased new from a library vendor, a substantial portion of the work is already done.

    Because of issues like this, libraries tend to put donated books on their “for sale” table unless they notice that the books really fill a hole the library personnel think is important in their collection.

    2. The Church has already put a lot of effort into doing what you describe a few years ago. They prepared a library collection, did much of the cataloging work, and donated these collections to libraries all over the US and Canada. I think overall the effort was well received and put a basic collection of books about Mormonism in most libraries. BUT, you would probably be surprised at the number of libraries that rejected the donation out-of-hand.

    By saying this, I’m not saying that this project is a waste of time. I am saying that whoever tries this should do a bit of research and discover what has been done already, whether the Church is still doing it or not, and figure out how to make it as successful as possible.

  8. Craig Blomberg on October 2, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Thanks, Jon, for adding How Wide the Divide! The list clearly didn\’t include anything from any evangelical publishers. If Stephen\’s and my book merits consideration, then Robert Millet\’s and Gerald McDermott\’s Claiming Christ (Brazos, 2007) does so even more. It\’s no more of a debate (despite the mandated subtitle by the publisher) than ours was and covers even more topics and is even more up-to-date. Bob\’s The Vision of Mormonism (Paragon House, 2007) and the co-edited volume by Don Musser and David Paulsen, Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies (Mercer, 2007) merit significant attention as well. Another honorable mention should probably go to Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Univ. of Illinois, 1999). And what about Stephen Robinson\’s and Dean Garrett\’s one-of-a-kind multi-volume Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants from Deseret?

  9. Kent (MC) on October 2, 2008 at 11:48 am

    I’m with you Craig. I would like to see a whole lot more books that deal with Theology on that list, including Blake Ostler’s series.

  10. Jonovitch on October 2, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Craig (8), nice to “meet” you! When I read “Divide” it was on a bus to and from work, every evening and morning. None of the other riders knew what an enlightening book I had in my hands. It was and is a fantastic discussion.

    I haven’t read any of the “follow-up” books, but from the reviews I’ve read, none come close to explaining and reconciling the cores of the two belief systems the way the original did. The format, style, and openness to the other’s viewpoints (without trying too hard to discredit them) are unmatched. That’s why it deserves a place on the shelf, and why some of the follow-ups do not. From what I’ve read (in reviews and his own articles), McDermott is particularly slanted toward disproving Mormonism — unfortunate and unnecessary.

    Kent (6), as for the “classics” I think recent research typically trumps older history, right?. (Kind of like living prophets vs. dead prophets?)

    Jon

  11. Seth R. on October 2, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    I don’t think “Claiming Christ” or “Bridging the Divide” break the high threshold set by “How Wide the Divide”. Neither book is quite as good (although admittedly “Bridging” had a very different purpose that the other two).

  12. R. Brent on October 3, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    The world will always sensationalize Mormonism more than most other religions given that its claims are indeed more sensationalistic than those of most other religions. Here are just a few of the claims and practices that Mormonism has proudly proclaimed and/or practised before the world throughout its short history :

    - A modern-day prophet and apostles
    - Current and continuously received revelation direct from Jesus Christ who, it is claimed, personally directs the affairs and operations of this religion
    - \”Sacred\” Temples wherein secret rites and ordinances are enacted not generally known to the world
    - Special \”sacred\” underwear worn by members
    - A long and complicated history involving polygamy and persecution for alleged crimes of all sorts
    - A very visible and active missionary presence almost worldwide continuously \”marketing\” the religion and its highly unusual claims

    Small wonder that the world is going to pay attention and formulate strongly held opinions and reactions to such sensationalistic claims and history; it is rather a foregone conclusion and to be fully expected.

    Thus while understandably Mormonism ought to be more accurately represented in books and by the Media, yet if we expect this of those who are non-members, ought we first to ensure that the Church do so in its own books and Media presentations? Can we truly expect outsiders to represent us accurately and objectively, as we would prefer, while the Church and its leaders continue to misrepresent that same history and its own claims in its books, teaching materials, and Media representations?

    Unlike the Church in decades past, today the Church\’s public-relations people, beginning with Gordon B. Hinckley\’s involvement therein, actively promote and publish blatantly white-washed accounts of Mormonism, its doctrines and views, and its history that are just as distorted and filled with propaganda and inaccuracies in favor of the Church as are the many truly anti-Mormon books and like Media representations against it. Whether it be our priesthood manuals on the lives of Joseph Smith, Jr., Brigham Young, etc., deliberately omitting from quotes printed and information therein any mention of their dozens of other wives to President Hinckley declaring on television and in print representing them as monogamistsAnd to distort, detract from, an/or omit actual truth for whatever cause is to be deliberately deceitful and disingenuous. After all, is not this what the \”anti-Mormons\” do, themselves?

    Yes, I know this might be perceived as flying in the face of Boyd K. Packer\’s admonition in his address a few years ago (Boyd K. Packer, \”The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect\”, 1981, BYU Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 259-271) that we not tell the truth unless it is faith promoting (\”There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not… Some things that are true are not very useful.”). And yet, is not this the same basic motivation of the \”anti-Mormon\” in likewise deliberately distorting or omitting the facts so as to promote, market, and/or propagandize his own views?

    If we wish to have Mormonism treated with less bias and more truthfully in the general Media, would it not behoove us to do so ourselves, first?

  13. R. Brent on October 3, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Correction to previous submission…

    … to President Hinckley, in contradiction to Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse and the doctrinal pronouncement’s of past Presidents (Prophets) John Taylor, Joseph F. Smith, etc., declaring during two separate media interviews that he doesn’t know whether the Church believes that “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become”:

    Q: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don’t Mormons believe that God was once a man?

    A: I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.” (San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1997. p. 3/Z1).

    “On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it” (Time, Aug. 4, 1997, p. 56).

    Again, until or unless the Church is more willing to tell the truth unashamedly regarding its history and doctrines — such as it once did — we cannot expect others to represent the Church objectively, either.