This is a discussion T&S permabloggers Julie and Dave had last week about the new book Letters to a Young Mormon (Maxwell Institute, 2014) by Adam Miller (also a T&S permablogger).
Dave: Three things a reader should know about Letters to a Young Mormon: It is short, 78 pages if you count the title page. It is published by the Maxwell Institute, part of their Living Faith series (each volume in the series is an “example of faith in search of understanding” by “a scholar who has cultivated a believing heart …”). And it is written by a philosopher, which is always a plus. But I wonder how young a Mormon needs to be to be part of the intended audience. My sense is that anyone from twelve to a hundred would enjoy the book and profit from reading it.
Julie: Good question. An interesting bit of reception history here: I’ve seen reviewers mocked for assuming that the book was actually addressed to young Mormons and not recognizing the conceit of the genre. On the other hand, Adam does say in the intro that he “imagined [himself] writing these letters to [his] own children.” I’d guess that the letters are designed for what our evangelical friends call “worldview formation,” which is best done with teens who are still in the process of forming said worldview. But there is a lot of work to be done in re-shaping the worldview of adults who have been poorly taught. And while my 12-year-old would get something out of this book, and my 16-year-old would get more out of this book, I got an awful lot out of it.
Dave: The book is composed of twelve short chapters. The first three cover agency, work, and sin. Here is how Adam starts the chapter on sin, a topic young Mormons hear a lot about but probably don’t ponder in much detail:
Being a good person doesn’t mean you’re not a sinner. Sin goes deeper. Being good will save you a lot of trouble, but it won’t solve the problem of sin. Only God can do this. Fill your basket with good apples rather than bad ones, but, in the end, sin has as much to do with the basket as with the apples. Sin depends not just on your actions but on the story you use those actions to tell.
He dwells on the idea of your life as a story, one you are building by living it, and building that story “on the fly, out of whatever borrowed scraps are at hand.” But it is not God’s purpose that we have a never-ending chain of successes in our life story: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39 NRSV).
Julie: Your excerpt here shows one of Adam’s great skills: he is the Analogy King … which is maybe a little ironic in a book based on the idea that the stories we tell fail us. As a big fan of narrative (and its theological implications), I have to admit to being a little conflicted about his demand that we give up the stories we tell. I know that there is a distinction between the stories that we want to be true about our personal lives and the stories that, for example, the Gospels tell about Jesus, but still, I’m a little touchy on this point.
Dave: Not just clever analogies — Adam sometimes uses jarring analogies and harsh metaphors, aggressive terms to shake up complacent Mormon readers and get our attention. I liked the chapter on history, not an easy topic for young Mormons these days. Adam notes that God does his work using “weak, partial, and limited mortals like us”:
To demand that church leaders, past and present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel’s most basic claim: that God’s grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.
He advises tolerance not only for our imperfections, but also for the imperfect stories we tell ourselves about our collective past. At some point the faith-promoting versions of LDS history we get in bits and pieces at church will need to give way to “the messy, vibrant, and inconvenient truths that characterize God’s real work with real people.” I am reminded of that quotation from Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Adam seems to be saying yes, our timber is crooked, but God can make something of us nonetheless.
Julie: I’ve been thinking recently about the distinction between what I would call “responsive apologetics” and “deep apologetics.” The former is when we are challenged on some particular topic and generate a response to it. This is a good and necessary kind of apologetics, but defense doesn’t win games. We also need the latter kind — the kind which creates a narrative that makes it less likely that people will agonize over the messiness to which they are exposed, instead of expecting a mess. The Givens’ book was an important part of this work. Craig Harline’s essay is (at least as I read it) an important part. Adam’s book is, similarly, important.
Dave: One thing I like about the book is that Adam covers science and history and sex as well as scripture, faith, and prayer. I think Correlation has narrowed the range of LDS discourse in manuals and magazines. We need to teach our youth that Mormonism is big and wide enough to deal with life, all of it. In the book’s opening paragraph, Adam references “tough questions that lack easy answers.” Too often we paint the gospel as a set of easy answers, a plan of guaranteed happiness. In fact, life can be very tough. “I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins” (Enos 1:2). This book prepares young Mormons to do that wrestling.
Julie: Yes. His treatment of faith didn’t work for me nearly as well as that in The God Who Weeps (Adam has already interacted with that treatment in this post), but the very fact that we have faithful LDS thinkers presenting more than one conceptualization of faith is, for my money, a much better state of affairs than if we only had one of them presenting the one true version. This is one of those books that everyone should read.