Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: Through the Valley of Shadows

Although Samuel Brown’s new book, Through the Valley of Shadows, is not a book that focuses on Mormonism, I jumped at the chance to review it for Times and Seasons simply because the subject matter fascinated me. Death, after all, is something that we all face, and I was already tangentially aware that technological advances are creating thickets of ethical and emotional—not to mention economic—concerns around this final encounter. I didn’t really have any preconceived opinions about the topic, however, just a curiosity that made me eager to read Brown’s book. I was not disappointed. The book covers an impressively wide range of territory. Of course there is a lot about medical care in modern ICUs—both from the standpoint of academic research as well as from first-hand accounts from Brown’s own career—but aside from that the book also delves into social history, cognitive psychology, and legal theory. Brown’s central argument is that two sea changes in modern society have left us naked and alone in the final confrontation with death. The first is the Dying of Death, which removed the narratives and social infrastructure that had provided a template of a “good death.” By the end of the Dying of Death, Americans had contained the terror of death by simply ignoring it until the moment of crisis, but the sanctity of death had disappeared along with its menacing presence… Since twentieth-century Americans had not generally spent their lives in the shadow…

The Anthropocentric Shift: Secular Age, round 6

Links to posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 In the last several posts, we’ve covered how the enchanted, hierarchical world of pre-modern Europe slowly shifted in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries to a “disciplinary” society, where human beings began to perceive themselves as rational agents and masters of their own will and destiny, and increasingly related to each other in terms of mutual benefit, exchange, and equality. This shift corresponded with the changes in scientific views (with the “mechanized” universe), sociopolitical views (i.e. government as an instrument for mutual benefit), and economic developments (the rise of the “invisible hand” free market) . In this post covering chapters 6 and 7, we’ll see corresponding religious changes during the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulting in what Taylor calls “Providential Deism” — the bridge between the transcendence of pre-modern Christianity and the immanence of secular humanism and atheism. Providential Deism encapsulated what Taylor calls the anthropocentric shift, or the reduction of religion, politics, the universe, God, etc. to fit the scope of human flourishing in the here-and-now.  The other face of this anthropocentric shift was a widespread  “immanentization,” where the transcendent or other-worldly faded in importance and legitimacy. In Providential Deism, the religion of many Enlightenment intellectual elites, we see these changes reflected in the recasting of God’s nature from that of a being who relates to us through his agency and personality, to one who relates to us only indirectly–…

Whom say ye that I am? A review of John Turner’s Mormon Jesus

This is the first in a series on John Turner’s The Mormon Jesus: A Biography. John Turner’s latest book — The Mormon Jesus: A Biography — is wonderful. The book opens with Jesus’ question to his apostles, as recorded in Mark 8:29, “But whom say ye that I am?” Over the succeeding nine chapters, Turner explores how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have answered that question over time. By themes, Turner constructs a rich historical narrative of the evolution of Mormon belief. Along the way, he places Mormon views in the context of broader Christianity: Joseph Smith revised the Bible? So did Thomas Jefferson and others, but in very different ways. This anchoring of Latter-day Saint views in their time and place doesn’t make Mormonism’s brand of Christianity the same as other groups; rather, it serves to highlight what is actually distinctive. Furthermore, Turner illustrates each theme with well-told illustrations, such as ordinary members of the Church who saw visions and reacted to revelations. Turner weaves a lush tapestry of a faith that has learned and evolved over the last 200 years. I highly recommend you take it in. Here is his conclusion: “Mormonism is a vibrant new branch of Christianity, one in which temples, ordinances, and prophets have taken their place alongside a Jesus who is both utterly Christian and distinctively Mormon.” In case you need more to draw you in, here’s a little…

‘A Reason For Faith’: A Review

During the lesson in Elders Quorum this past Sunday, we discussed ways to enhance our study of the scriptures. As usual, I raised my hand and recommended that we study the scriptures within their historical and cultural context so that our “likening” of them does not turn into “making stuff up.” I said that this should also include a study of Church history in order to understand our own doctrines, revelations, and controversies. And to top it all off, I suggested we work on developing religious literacy in order to have fruitful conversations with those outside our faith tradition. This class discussion also featured a number of stories about gospel conversations with co-workers. This reminded me of an encounter I had with a manager a couple years ago.

Thoughts on Planted: Apologetics in an Age of Doubt

Patrick Q. Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2015) is the latest entry in the New Mormon Apologetics field. From the credits page: “This book is the result of a joint publishing effort by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book Company.” That is a promising partnership. The broad and inclusive message of the book is badly needed by the general membership of the Church and by local leadership. Having the book on the shelves at Deseret Book (or hopefully on a display table up front) is the best way to get there, short of an apostle mentioning the book by name in General Conference. I am going to give short comments on three topics of interest, then invite readers to post their own impressions of the book.

Modern Sources of Belonging– Secular Age, round 5

The changes in construals of the self discussed in the last post were merely the flip side of new construals of sociality. This pairing helps correct narratives about the modern “rise of individualism” at the expense of community; individualism is learned, not natural, and “belonging” is an innate need that does not disappear with modernity. Rather, the sources of belonging become impersonal, direct, and “flattened.” We shift from a pre-modern social model where members are embedded within a hierarchical chain of being to one in which members of society perceive their fellow citizens and the political order as instruments to achieve common benefits— security and prosperity—from a position of (theoretical) equality among free individuals.  How did we get there? Not unlike how we got to the buffered, disengaged “individual” self in our last post: we develop objectified, instrumentalist ways of understanding the social and political order.  Changing notions of natural law and moral order, the emerging focus on the economy, and the rise of the public sphere are some of the loci for these transformations of the western social imaginary. With Grotius and Locke’s new versions of natural law in the seventeenth century, we see the roots of the modern moral order emerging. Previous conceptions of order understood reality to be shaped by self-realizing Platonic forms or by a correspondence between all levels of nature (micro) and the divine/Ideal order (macro). Society constituted different hierarchical but complementary orders in which one’s…

New Construals of the Self: Secular Age round 4

(Links to Rounds 1 , 2, and 3)  In the previous chapter, Taylor outlined some of the main “bulwarks” of enchanted belief that had to give way for exclusive humanism to eventually emerge. In Chapter 2, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society,” Taylor examines some of the new construals of self and society that would help make that shift possible: the development of a “disciplined, disengaged stance to self and society” (136). In doing so, Taylor continually reminds us of the  “zigzag” nature of this trajectory; instead of an inevitable subtraction of enchanted beliefs or transcendent references that culminated in a purely immanent humanism—secularism’s irresistible march– new imaginaries were generated by initially religious motives. For example, the early modern devotional effort to bring the Incarnation’s sanctifying force to all the ordinary contexts of life “led people to invest these contexts with a new significance and solidity” (144) ; a significance that would eventually become self-sufficient and severed from transcendent roots. Taylor continually emphasizes the “zigzag” trajectory to combat the guise of inevitability or “naturalness” that modern secular narratives employ to cloak their own contingency and religious origins. So what were some of these new construals? In this post I’ll focus on the new construals of the self, and in the next post will look at those of the new social order (which Taylor explores in more detail in Chapter 4, “The Modern Social Imaginary”). The emergence of a buffered, disengaged self arises through and…

Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

(Links to Rounds 1 and 2) These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the  “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” [1]. According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable. Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had to be removed for exclusive humanism to emerge. One was the belief that the natural world was divinely orchestrated—part of a semiotic cosmos that pointed beyond to an order and force beyond itself (God). Secondly, society was embedded in a higher time and higher reality: collective rituals, holy days, and other practices brought society into contact with the “higher” dimension of time or existence, as well as protected them from malevolent forces. The “higher reality” —the Kingdom of God— made…

Transformation and Flourishing: A Secular Age, Round 2

(Link to Round 1) This post revisits the theme of fullness from Taylor’s introduction that I mentioned briefly in the last post. In the universal quest for the “good life”—the telos that determines what makes life valuable and what is the normative way to live— Taylor distinguishes the believer and the unbeliever by where they locate this fullness (the transcendent or the immanent frame), and what fullness entails (transformation or flourishing). What does Taylor mean by “transformation” and “flourishing”? In short, flourishing is the perfection or fulfillment of our “human material” (i.e. sexual fulfillment, security and success, health and prosperity, etc.), while transformation entails a “radical change in identity” that “takes us beyond merely human perfection”—or requires its very renunciation– in the name of a higher good. More specifically, “the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case…to the point of the extinction of self in one case [Buddhism], or to that of renunciation of human fulfillment to serve God in the other [Christianity].” But what does “serving God” mean? Doesn’t the Judeo-Christian God desire our flourishing? (Yes, Taylor affirms). Might not its renunciation simply be instrumental to greater flourishing, some kind of “unnecessary ballast on the journey of life”? Taylor argues this negates the sacrificial power of the “renunciation”; the transformative power stems from this very act of affirming and surrendering the “unsubstitutable good” of our own flourishing.…

Conditions of Belief in A Secular Age: Secular Age Round 1

I finished Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age last summer, and it was one of those books that you finish reading and the world feels like an entirely different place. In this book, Taylor examines not only the emergence of Western secularism, but the experience of living in it. His project is phenomenological as much as it is genealogical; tracing the winding paths and new terrain that deposited us in this creedally pluralistic society, while also examining the pathos, the uncertainty, the limitations and fruits of navigating our way through the midst of many plausible alternatives of how to believe and how to live.  For this reason, I found the book not only intellectually enlightening, but spiritually awakening. In this series of blog posts, I hope to sketch some of his insights and observations on the history of our secular condition and the “cross-pressures” we experience within it. I will interweave some musings on some of the implications for or intersections with [my experience of] Mormonism. In other words, consider this a very selective [1] Cliffnotes version with some commentary.  In these first few posts, I’ll start with the introduction and try to tackle sequential chapters in following posts–though Taylor admits his work is not linear, but rather a series of interlocking essays (so don’t expect too much linearity in how I proceed, though I’ll do my best). Here it goes! First, terms. What does Taylor mean by a “secular” age? Taylor outlines…

Review: First Principles and Ordinances

I’m going to say some nice things about Sam Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple, published in 2014 by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. But first some background. This short book (153 pages of text) is part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series, which also includes Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon. What I like about both books is that they take a relentlessly positive approach to the LDS doctrines and principles they discuss but avoid the oversimplified discussion that has become the norm for the LDS curriculum and mainstream LDS books. These are books directed at the intelligent Mormon reader.

Review: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding

You have probably heard about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015; publisher’s page) by Brian C. and Laura H. Hales. It has been getting a lot of attention, coming as it does in the wake of the recently released polygamy essays at LDS.org. Furthermore, the book follows the three-volume treatment of the history and theology of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, authored by Brian C. Hales and (for volumes 1 and 2) Don Bradley and also published by Kofford. Not having read the three volumes, I assume the 100 pages of narrative text in this shorter volume, along with the 75 pages of biographical sketches of the 35 women who were, in one sense or another, plural wives of Joseph Smith, are something like a summary of the material discussed at greater length in the three longer volumes. An abridgement, if you will.

On Not Reading the Book of Mormon

Having heard nice things about the odd little book by Pierre Bayard How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (ht: someone out there), I finally found it. And read it. Summary: You read a very, very small slice of all published books. You forget most of what you read, so you retain only a small part of the few books you actually read. Worse yet, you bend and twist what you do remember to fit your own personal matrix of ideas and experiences. So what is in your head after reading a book, even more so for a book you read years ago, likely bears little or no similarity to the actual text of the book. Maybe we should forget books, forget any claim to link to some text that we supposedly read and remember, and just talk creatively and imaginatively about our own ideas and experiences. The author draws a lot out of that simple set of claims. He throws in some fancy terms (he is, after all, a professor of literature): the inner book is the personal matrix of ideas you use to deform what you remember of books you deign to actually read; the screen book is the collection of deformed scraps and snippets in your memory for any given book, which obviously varies dramatically across individuals and might have little to do with the actual book you read; and the phantom book is “that mobile…

A Conversation About Letters to a Young Mormon

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…

Review: The Fading Flower & Swallow the Sun

Mahonri Stewart recently released two of his plays–The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun–together in a single volume. I found both of them to be so compelling, that I’m truly sad that no productions have been put on or are scheduled within 1,000 miles of where I live on the East Coast. More than just enjoyable, however, I found that they presented a strong and compellingly Mormon artistic perspective. While there is no doubt that the subject matter of both plays is Mormon, what really struck me was less the viewed and more the viewpoint. The Fading Flower centers around the faith struggles of Joseph Smith’s youngest son David, who was born after his father’s death. As he grows older, he is  caught between the rival factions of the RLDS Church (with whom he was raised and with his brother serving as President) and the Brighamites (the objects of his missionary endeavors). So the setting is clearly Mormon, but what is really Mormon is David’s tortured journey to pursue the truth about his father’s practice of polygamy. Anyone can write about the subject of Mormon polygamy (just ask HBO), but looking at the issue through the lens of David becomes a powerful and uniquely Mormon reflection on the peril and promise of living in such close proximity to our historical legends. Of course with such a controversial and painful topic at the heart of the play, Stewart could easily have…

How a concussion made me think of Stephenie Meyer and Francis Hutcheson

Last semester, my first semester studying Greek, I sustained a mild concussion. I have mostly recovered now. I still have problems with bright lights that makes nighttime driving intolerable, but for the most part, I’m functioning normally. But for a few weeks there, I couldn’t think straight. It hurt to concentrate. Reading even a light novel was difficult, and translating Greek was nigh impossible. Just looking at Greek letters caused me pain. But my handwriting was spectacular. Any notes I took about lectures I attended during that time are the most clearly written, beautifully precise notes I have ever taken. Sketching was fine too, so the concentration required to look and draw was painlessly available to me. It was strange to experience this involuntary shift in my capacities. I tend to think that what I think, how I think, is what I am. But if my cognitive functions are subject to physical manipulations, some of which are outside of my control, can I think of my thinking self as my self? Stephenie Meyer’s adult sci-fi book The Host is a science fiction romance exploration of the connection between emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development with the particulars of physical embodied experience. In that way, it is a very Mormon reflection on purpose of mortality and morality. For Meyer, the particulars of human embodiment includes deliberate agency and unintentional feelings of passion, vulnerability, and need. This naturally results in social structures, the…

Book of Mormon Comics

I love stories. A narrative strikes me as the most fundamental way of ideas with other people. And by ideas, I mean not only the bare events of the narrative, but also abstract concepts, morals, and emotional truths. It makes sense to me that our basic scriptural texts have strong narratives. The Old Testament is a collection of stories, with the consequences of one generation’s choices setting the stage for the actions of the next. The Book of Mormon also has very strong narratives. Other classic stories that we are familiar with, we feel free to reimagine. We update fairy tales, retell myths in modern settings. Even the stories of Genesis are recognized as archetypes that we re-present and reinterpret. But too often Mormons tend to shy away from this type of creative engagement with the text and narratives of the Book of Mormon, perhaps from a kind of self-censorship that fears corrupting in some way the most true book on the face of the earth. Unfortunately, that means that while we regard the book as wholly inspired (or just holy), it often remains dry and emotionally opaque to us. Although we are counseled to apply the scriptures to ourselves, we often don’t actually take the obvious first step of sympathizing with the people of the Book of Mormon as though they were real, feeling men (or women, for the few that are explicitly mentioned in the text). The unfamiliar…

The Rifts of Rime

Finally, a book by Steve Peck that I can read with my children! At first my husband thought that would be A Short Stay in Hell; it is only 70 pages, but I had to disabuse him of that notion. As much as children enjoy thinking about infinity (How can anything go on forever? But if there is a limit, what is on the other side?), I thought the main character was brutally murdered far too many times to be appropriate bedtime reading material for small children. And I would like to save that little volume for them to read later on, as adults, when they can be well and truly terrified by that particular contemplation of the afterlife. And The Scholar of Moab would be a bit tricky to read aloud. I think too much of the novel would pass over their heads. As much as they would like the story of Hyrum Thayne stealing the dictionary from the library, or the very idea of a two-headed cowboy, too many of the wickedly funny parts, like Sandra’s power plays and her relationship with Hyrum, are beyond their ken. And my children are not yet familiar with the idea of the unreliable narrator. Everything in The Scholar of Moab, from alien abductions to scholarly publications about the faith of bees, must be taken at face value and absolutely cannot be taken at face value. That’s fine; this book will be…