What Does it Mean When a Book is Mentioned in Conference?

April 13, 2009 | 48 comments
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Some time ago, I started putting together lists of the books mentioned and referenced in General Conference Talks. So during the Priesthood Session I started wondering what would be referenced in the printed version of Elder Eyring’s talk.

The talk, titled “Man Down!” included Elder Eyring’s telling of a story widely known as “Black Hawk Down,” which has been both a bestselling book and an R-rated Hollywood movie. After the session, I began to wonder whether Elder Eyring’s talk would reference the movie or the book. I assumed it would reference the book, since the movie was rated R.

I was wrong.

In fact, Elder Eyring’s citation was not to the book, nor was it to the movie. Instead it was to a completely unexpected source: The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual. Since I haven’t read it I can’t say, but I suspect that this version isn’t nearly as detailed or dramatic as either the book or the movie.

I don’t want to make a big deal about Elder Eyring’s reading habits, but I have to admit to being curious about why anyone who isn’t in the military or a reporter covering the military, or at least a military enthusiast, would read a military field manual. I have to assume that either Elder Eyring is an enthusiast to some degree, or someone pointed out the story to him there.

In any case, the list is fun. Of course it demonstrates a lot about what we see as authoritative sources in the LDS Church. I’ve omitted references to scriptures, Church magazines and to Church manuals, which are the most frequent citations. Even so, Conference talks rely on books by LDS Prophets, Apostles and General Authorities above anything else.

But when we get beyond these sources, the citations often say a lot about the General Authority’s personality. President Monson, for example, cited The Music Man in one of his talks last Fall. Doesn’t that seem just like what he would do? Fun, good-hearted and loveable match his personality to the musical (and I say that even though I don’t particularly like musicals!). And is it any surprise that Elder Oaks would cite a somewhat dense and metaphorical work like Mere Christianity?

On the other hand, there are often surprises, such as Elder Eyring’s citation of The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual and “Black Hawk Down.”

I don’t want to make too much of all this. To me this is simply a fun exercise. Over the long term I hope to compile a list of the most frequently cited books in General Conference. (At this point, I’m fairly sure that History of the Church will win). Until then I will continue to be surprised at many of the works mentioned.

And, I’ll wonder if referencing a book isn’t a kind of endorsement, to some small degree. I think I have already convinced my High Priests Group leader that Elder Eyring’s talk means we can watch “Black Hawk Down” at our next group activity. <GRIN>

You can see the compilations of books cited in General Conference here:

April 2009
October 2008
April 2008

48 Responses to What Does it Mean When a Book is Mentioned in Conference?

  1. Julie M. Smith on April 13, 2009 at 8:17 am

    Fascinating. I have to wonder how many of these sources are reversed engineered–say if Elder Eyring said to his secretary, “A few years ago, I read an interesting story about black hawk down but I can’t remember where. Can you find me a source for that?”

    I also noticed that one member of the Q12 cited “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” from the Atlantic Monthly in this month’s Ensign.

  2. ESO on April 13, 2009 at 8:36 am

    I really wonder though: I would guess that whether you first heard the Somalia story on the news, from word of mouth, or at the movies, you would attempt to site the original version of the story, in this case the military report. I can’t imagine that is what is on his bedside table.

  3. John Mansfield on April 13, 2009 at 8:43 am

    A year and a half ago, Bishop Richard Edgley spoke in Conference about wards pulling together to help their members through hardships. The first third of his talk came from a humor column that Robert Kirby wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune two years prior. This must have been terribly disturbing for an ornery cynic like Brother Kirby. All his contrarian credibility is now shot. When one of the presiding bishop’s counselors likes a writer’s stuff and approvingly reads long passages over the pulpit to the whole church to illustrate a valuable principle, well, time has dulled whatever edginess the writer may have once possessed. He may as well devote his future writing hours to poetry about babies descending from heaven trailing clouds of glory.

  4. Kristine on April 13, 2009 at 8:51 am

    As Julie’s comment suggests, periodicals referenced would also be interesting. I’d reckon on The Atlantic Monthly, First Things, and maybe Time… What else?

  5. Nate Oman on April 13, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Frankly, I thought that most interesting citation in this last conference was Elder Cook’s reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, _The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable_ a strange, wandering, and occasionally brilliant polemic about decision theory and the problem of statistical inference.

  6. SmallAxe on April 13, 2009 at 8:56 am

    I think there’s a certain amount of danger in creating this kind of canon. I don’t necessarily think such was the intention of the author, but IMO too many LDSs take such a list as normative. We’ve been having a related discussion at FPR (http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2009/04/what-if-anything-do-gas-read/). Both of these discussions (at least implicitly) raises the issue: how much should the books referred to in GC impact our choices in reading? (Not counting of course the standard works and other GA-produced material.)

  7. Mark Brown on April 13, 2009 at 9:01 am

    I had not noticed the sermon by bishop Edgley where he cites Richard Kirby. However, just a couple of years before that, Kirby was cited by Elder Ballard in a talk about the tendency of meeting to multiply. Elder Ballard quoted Kirby’s restatement of the 13th article of faith called We Believe in Meetings.

    So, a member of the 12 and the presiding bishop think Kirby is authoritative enough for general conference. I don’t know what Kirby himself think of that, but he has plenty of detractors who think he ought to be ex’ed. It must make them positively apoplectic.

  8. BTD Greg on April 13, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Interesting topic.

    During one of the Sunday sessions, someone referenced an extended passage from one of C.S. Lewis’ works that, at the time, I thought was interesting. My thought was that Lewis’ thinking was strikingly un-LDS, and that the text was being interpreted and converted to fit into LDS theology.

    No, sorry, I don’t recall the speaker, or the C.S. Lewis book, or even the subject. I’m not an accredited member of the bloggernacle, so that’s the kind of shoddy commenting you’re going to get from me.

  9. Wm Morris on April 13, 2009 at 9:20 am

    I agree with Nate (although I haven’t read the book yet). I found the black swan reference intriguing. I mean, it makes sense that quite a few members of the leadership of the Church would stay up on the big buzz “big idea” books, but I don’t recall ever hearing a reference to one of them in conference.

  10. Mark Brown on April 13, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Those are some interesting lists, Kent. Thanks for doing the legwork.

    In our meetings and classes in our wards, we are advised to use correlated materials almost exclusively. The example of the brethren in general conference causes me to wonder how to understand that guideline.

    I noticed that Pres. Hinckley sometimes cited the Wall Street Journal.

  11. Ardis E. Parshall on April 13, 2009 at 9:29 am

    A lot of the work of the church historian librarians in the weeks leading up to each conference involves tracking down material for the general authorities (or citations requested by Ensign editors on GAs’ behalf) — who wrote this bit of poetry? what is the exact wording of that oft-paraphrased speech? find me a source for this-or-that story I want to tell. The citation that appeared in the published talk isn’t necessarily the remotest reflection of where the speaker read or heard something — he may have seen a movie or recalled a memorized line from junior high school or read something in Reader’s Digest. The published source indicates only where the librarian found an acceptable citation.

  12. Ardis E. Parshall on April 13, 2009 at 9:30 am

    er, “church history librarians,” that is

  13. Marc Bohn on April 13, 2009 at 9:38 am

    I’m having visions of a Church History librarian putting a great deal of effort into avoiding a citation to “Man Down!” or the film “Black Hawk Down.”

  14. Kaimi Wenger on April 13, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Good question, Kent.

    I thought that the reference to The Music Man was very nice, last conference.

    I also remember being dismayed that the source for Elder Hales’ talk on Tyndale a few years ago was _Fire in the Bones_, a very inconsistent Deseret Book biography.

  15. Kristine on April 13, 2009 at 9:40 am

    BTD Greg, it was Elder Oaks, and I think it was Mere Christianity.

  16. Marc Bohn on April 13, 2009 at 9:44 am

    (Citation courtesy of Kristine, accredited member of the bloggernacle)

  17. Rameumptom on April 13, 2009 at 9:45 am

    I’m personally glad to see GAs quote an eclectic group of writings (books, articles, commentaries, editorials, etc), because it helps the Saints to perhaps realize that there is a lot of truth and knowledge available out there, outside of the standard works.

    I knew a stake president once, who believed he didn’t have to listen to the news, etc., because the Conference talks and standard works contained all he needed to know. I didn’t openly disagree with him, but thought to myself: he has a law degree. He obviously didn’t think the same applied to obtaining that degree, because he wasn’t going to find textbook case law in the scriptures….

  18. Craig M. on April 13, 2009 at 9:48 am

    As #1 hints at, General Authorities probably vary quite a bit in their level of finding sources for their talks — some may draw upon their personal readings while others may ask an assistant to find a good quote to drive home a certain point, an anecdote, or statistics to back up an assertion. But in the end, of course, the one giving the discourse gives the final seal of approval on the content.

  19. BTD Greg on April 13, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Kristine, thanks. That sounds right.

    Now if I could only remember what my beef was with the quotation.

  20. BTD Greg on April 13, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Okay, memory refreshed.

    Here’s the passage from Lewis that was quoted by Elder Oaks:

    C. S. Lewis explained this teaching of the Savior: “The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the centre—wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race. Some people think the fall of man had something to do with sex, but that is a mistake. . . . What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come . . . the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

    What struck me was how Lewis’ explanation of Satan’s temptation–and original sin–is very un-Mormon-like. I’m sure thousands of times every Sunday in LDS meetings we talk about “becoming like God.” I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard the Garden of Eden story explained in such a way that the “be like gods” portion was one of the truths that Satan mixed with his lies to make them more palatable. Of course, this is also one of the old standbys in the anti-Mormon community: that Mormons think they can become like God.

    Anyway, sorry for the tangent.

  21. BTD Greg on April 13, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Minor post-script (sorry): I recognize that this is not exactly what CS Lewis was talking about, but that he meant setting yourself up as apart from and independent of God. But it’s sort of a related thought.

  22. Nate Oman on April 13, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Wm Morris: I’m reading the Taleb book now. It is a really odd volume, and there is so much of Taleb’s personality and autobiography in it that at times I just want to grab him by the lapels, smack him across the face, and say “Enough about you. Just shut up about your life as a misunderstood genius and talk about probability theory.”

  23. Julie M. Smith on April 13, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Nate, I gave up after the first few pages. Ugh.

  24. Tanya Spackman on April 13, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Though I haven’t read The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual, I have read other military field manuals (work-related, not just because I couldn’t find anything better to read), and though I wouldn’t say any were particular riveting or great literature, they’re not entirely as dull as you might think. Some paragraphs are even downright interesting!

    One of my goals in life is to find the perfect spot to fit “transubstantiationalistically” in a military document. Isn’t that a fun word? (I write military documents, so it’s actually a perfectly reasonable goal.)

  25. Mark Ashurst-McGee on April 13, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Fascinating project, Kent. I think it could be a great study and a good reading list. Keep it up.

  26. Kent Larsen on April 13, 2009 at 11:36 am

    BTD Greg (8, 19,20), Kristine (15), PLEASE, you’ve made me rather annoyed. The links at the bottom of the post gave you the answer! Click on the link to the April 2009 Conference, and you will find that indeed it was Elder Oaks who quoted from Mere Christianity.

    Are you suggesting I shouldn’t have bothered to post the lists if you weren’t going to use them?

    Here they are again:

    April 2009
    October 2008
    April 2008

  27. BTD Greg on April 13, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Kent, sorry about that. After posting, I went back and read the post again and actually clicked on the links and realized that I could have answered my question in about 30 seconds, without even Kirstine’s help, if I would have just read more carefully. Kind of embarrassing.

    The lists are indeed interesting, especially those books that aren’t Church-history related, and not published by Bookcraft or Deseret Books.

  28. Kent Larsen on April 13, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Mark Brown (10) said:

    In our meetings and classes in our wards, we are advised to use correlated materials almost exclusively. The example of the brethren in general conference causes me to wonder how to understand that guideline.

    I’ve wondered the same. The best explanation that I’ve come up with is that the Brethren are worried about how gospel centered the talks and lessons we give are. I’ve noticed that my own lessons can get off into non-gospel subjects if I’m not careful — perhaps more towards pop-psychology as I understand it, or life advice or common sense — and the requirement to use the scriptures and Church manuals helps.

    BUT, I don’t for a minute think that everyone is like me. I suspect that General Authorities, and many others also, probably can stick to gospel subjects even using outside sources.

    I still use outside sources on occasion (I have a favorite George Bernard Shaw example I use in my Temple Prep classes), but I also try to be very careful to make sure I stick to the subject of the lesson or talk, and make sure that it is, in fact, gospel.

  29. SCW on April 13, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    The Army Leadership Manual is FM 6-22. You can download a PDF of it from any number of sources. I don’t see the story of Black Hawk down in this manual.

  30. Kent Larsen on April 13, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Hmmm, thanks for the info SCW. The manual title as referenced in the talk is the The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual. I assume this is the same one you are referring to. FWIW, Elder Eyring’s talk referenced the 2004 edition (there is also a 2008 edition for sale on Amazon.com, so perhaps this is only in the earlier version?)

    If it isn’t there, I guess you would have to go back to Elder Eyring to find out why.

  31. Tanya Spackman on April 13, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    I don’t have access to the 2004 version of FM 6-22, but in the 2006 version, the events of Blackhawk Down are briefly mentioned on p. 7-9, and the source note for that paragraph is Mark Bowden, “Blackhawk Down,” Chapter 29, Philadelphia Inquirer (14 December
    1997): http://inquirer.philly.com/packages/somalia/sitemap.asp. If the 2004 version is similar enough to the 2006 version to have that reference (follow the link for a whole lot of info), that could be where President Eyring got the info.

  32. Eric Russell on April 13, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Also note that The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual is actually a civilian document published by McGraw-Hill that is based off of FM 22-100, which is the predecessor to FM 6-22.

  33. DavidH on April 13, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    “In our meetings and classes in our wards, we are advised to use correlated materials almost exclusively. The example of the brethren in general conference causes me to wonder how to understand that guideline.”

    I believe in following the prophet, and that is why I try to be sure to quote noncorrelated materials in my talks and lessons.

  34. Kent Larsen on April 13, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    BDT Greg (27), I’m sorry also. I came across a bit more annoyed than I wanted to. I apologize for not wording that more kindly.

  35. queuno on April 13, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Nate, I gave up after the first few pages. Ugh.

    I know a few AI professors who have bandied about the idea of extracting out the decision theory parts of the book into a useful summary. However, one of them feels that it would probably end up being a pamphlet.

  36. queuno on April 13, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    In our meetings and classes in our wards, we are advised to use correlated materials almost exclusively. The example of the brethren in general conference causes me to wonder how to understand that guideline.

    Easy. Here’s my rule: If a general authority cites it in conference, it’s correlated. I am free to introduce the original work as long as I point out that Elder so-and-so cited it in conference.

  37. bfwebster on April 13, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Re Taleb: I’d recommend going back to his earlier book, Fooled by Randomness. It actually covers more ground in less space and encompasses the “black swan” effect as well.

    That said, realize that Taleb was waving his hands about the massive economic meltdown before it ever happened precisely because he saw investors, fund managers, and government leaders ignoring the possibility of a ‘black swan’ event (such as the collapses of housing prices) in how they were ‘hedging’ their massive investments.

    What Taleb has to say in both books is quite important, eccentric though his writing approach might be. The vast majority of the human population — including the folks mentioned above, dealing with trillions of dollars — lack a solid understanding of probability. Yet modern civilization allows us to wager all that we own (and in some cases all that we are) without understanding just what the actual risks and probabilities are.

    Me, I had upper division statistic (which included probability theory) as a CS undergrad and later took a graduate course in pattern recognition (by computers), which was in effect advanced applied statistics/probability and calculus. Again, what Taleb has to say is very important to understand. ..bruce..

  38. queuno on April 13, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Me, I had upper division statistic (which included probability theory) as a CS undergrad and later took a graduate course in pattern recognition (by computers), which was in effect advanced applied statistics/probability and calculus. Again, what Taleb has to say is very important to understand. ..bruce..

    The topics he covers are important to understand, but he seems to annoy the heck out of a lot of AI/ML/KDD professors these days, who would prefer he cut out the fluff.

    I’d recommend going back to his earlier book, Fooled by Randomness. It actually covers more ground in less space and encompasses the “black swan” effect as well.

    Agreed. Again, it’s the ratio of coverage to words that seems to annoy people. Like he’s trying to write “Decision Theory for Dummies” but taking WAY too many pages.

    Fooled by Randomness is an excellent, tome. I’ve even cited it in my never-ending dissertation.

  39. Mark Ping on April 13, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Well, no one is perfect.

    The inserted soldiers were Delta Force operators, not Rangers. The helicopter pilot (Durant) tells about his experience (including captivity) in his excellent book, “In the Company of Heroes.”

  40. Ray on April 13, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    #35 – the Good Parts Version?

  41. Alison Moore Smith on April 14, 2009 at 12:18 am

    I loved the Black Swan reference. The books on my bedside table aren’t often elevated to conference referencing.

    Now I’ll be on the lookout for Outliers and The Reason for God. But I’m not holding my breath.

  42. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 14, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Somehow I have been a Gospel Doctrine teacher for most of the last 15 years, and my classes have included a current member of the Seventy (he owned a house in our ward), a member of a temple presidency, and stake presidents. I use a lot of outside references in preparing my lessons, not only C.S. Lewis but also Hugh Nibley and books and articles produced by FARMS, as well as relevant books and articles written by Protestant and Catholic theologians. I got nothing but support from all of the people in my classes.

    One of my bishops noted that, while I bring in a lot of outside information, I always emphasize the scriptures as the focus of each lesson. All of the other stuff helps us understand and appreciate the scriptures.

    The encouragement from Elder Ballard to engage the world over the internet is encouraging to me. It is a recognition that we all live in a media-saturated culture, and each of us is party to a hundred conversations, many with those who don’t understand Mormonism. Taking our doctrines into that conversation means we need to understand what others believe and relate our doctrine to those things. There is just as much need to do this kind of cultural translation as there is to have the Book of Mormon available in Japanese or Portuguese.

    The 13th Article of Faith is a charter for Latter-day Saints to go out on a quest for all of the lovely and praiseworthy things in the world around us, and bring them home to the Church. Emma Smith did that in selecting hyms for the church. We are commanded to increase learning out of “the best books.” One of the great strengths of the Church is that the great variety of members and leaders bring vast knowledge and experience to our teaching and leadership.

  43. Dane on April 14, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    I attended a missionary fireside at BYU in 2001 or 2002. The speaker was Pres. Uchtdorf (who was in the Seventy at the time). He quoted Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter, which I appreciated when I was later told by LDS acquaintances that Harry Potter was not appropriate reading material :)

  44. BnBGobo99 on April 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    As a member of the US military, I can tell you the population of military members who are LDS is far higher than that of the general population. It seems to me therefore, that many of the staff to the Quorum and the First Presidency probably have military experience and can readily point to and recommend such sources.

    I am concerned that the majority of you are disappointed that he chose a military publication (or based on a mil pub) to base part of his talk on. We should not be quick to discount the leadership and management skills the military can provide to future church leaders. Further, our military is based on the highest moral standards found in secular society (even if it is not readily apparent in some soldier’s day-to-day conducts), we [the military] are not ashamed to recognize God’s hands in protecting this nation.

  45. Ardis E. Parshall on April 15, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    I sense absolutely no disappointment, BnBGobo99, or disapproval of any sort — a little skepticism, maybe, that the speaker was actually reading an army field manual rather than getting the story from the more popularly accessible movie or book, but that expresses no disapproval of either the military or of general authority references to the military.

    As for military recognition of God, this is what happened at my father’s graveside service: When we had a question over whether to dedicate the grave first or have the military guard fire their salute, the captain of the guard immediately spoke up. “God before country, ma’am.”

  46. Kent Larsen on April 15, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    BnBGobo99, Ardis has nailed my feelings exactly. I was just surprised that the reference was a military publication instead of the more popularly known ones. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the story would be told elsewhere, though it does make sense for it to show up in military publications.

  47. BnBGobo99 on April 16, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Sorry if I misread some of your reactions. It’s difficult to tell the tone when reading on screen. Thank you for the story about your experience, Ardis. In fact, I tell my Airmen, “Service before Self” (one of the core values), but “Family before Service”.

    btw, just for gee-wiz knowledge, a few of us some time ago tried to crunch some numbers and we came up with this “best-guess” based on our personal observations: Mormon’s represent about 4-5% of the general military population, with 7-8% making up intel (linguists, analysts) (depending on service). That’s much higher than the general US population of 1.8%!

  48. BB on April 20, 2009 at 8:11 am

    Re #1 and #18: I was reminded of this post while hearing Pres. Eyring speak on leadership the other night at the BYU Management Society dinner in D.C. It appears the Army Leadership Field Manual is a source close to his heart. He talked of the manual’s value, quoted another portion of it and commended it to our reading.

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