Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mormon Moment or Mormon Myth?

I know that in some ways I'm naive. Most locker room humor goes over my head, I'm still not sure I really know what marijuana smells like, and the first time a nurse at the Red Cross blood drive asked to see my arms I had to ask why. But I'm fine with that; I don't think I'm missing anything by not being knowledgeable about such subjects. Yet being raised Mormon in Utah and mostly hearing only the more inspirational stories doesn't always prepare you for hearing the less inspiring parts of our history. It can lead some to question and even abandon their beliefs. But for me there was a moment when I was 19 years old and sitting in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) prior to leaving to serve a two-year mission in Brazil. I suddenly realized the commitment I was making and what I was giving up and leaving behind... and I had to know for myself that it wasn't a waste of my time. It wasn't enough to serve a mission just because my friends were doing it or because others expected me to go – I needed my own testimony (conviction) that I believed the things I would be teaching.

(Another example of how naive I can be: when I was offered another book on basically the same topic as this one I eventually accepted it because I found the similarity to this one interesting.  I looked at the early reviews on Amazon and they were mostly positive and many said it was "fair" and "unbiased."  My own opinion was very different.  Hopefully, I've learned my lesson.)

A lot of people are looking at Mormons right now, and I guess we must present an odd picture sometimes. Matthew Bowman has tried to write an academic look at the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the real name of the church) in his book The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. He covers the beginnings from Joseph Smith's background and his "First Vision," the early years and persecution, and the eventual exodus to Utah. He also looks at the growth of the church since then, from a small group of dedicated followers to a fast-growing worldwide membership, and he emphasizes the "American-ness" of the church and its values during that time. In his efforts to be scholarly and critical he deals with some sensitive issues – topics most Mormons are content to ignore – like polygamy and noisy dissidents throughout the years.

And it's his efforts to be critical that made me wonder about his personal beliefs. Except for a tiny dust-jacket blurb, you wouldn't know Mr. Bowman is a Mormon himself. He seems equally critical of Joseph Smith's lack of organizational leadership as he is of Brigham Young's mastery of it. I thought he was mocking the cherished pioneer legacy of the church when he called it a "romanticized theology of suffering." And he seems almost sympathetic to dissidents and those who publicly challenge church leaders and their authority, a view that seems at odds with a membership that actually considers their leader as a prophet called by God. And while I felt some parts were inspiring and others condescending, it made me wonder what kind of testimony Mr. (or should I say "Brother") Bowman might offer in a testimony meeting?

But I'm probably being overly sensitive and judging him too harshly given that he's trying to address questions that would seem perfectly natural to those outside the church. I looked at several professional reviews (NYTimes, Slate, etc.) and while it was generally well-received, a couple criticized him for being too dry. One even complained Bowman was hiding his religion, and wished he'd not held it at such arms-length (and I might agree). But otherwise most reviews were positive, and I'd probably agree with that as well. But if you pick it up (and especially if you're a Mormon), understand that it's trying very hard to be impartial and academic in its approach which unfortunately makes it occasionally dry, but otherwise not a bad book.  And a LOT better than some alternatives!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bashing Joseph Smith

(I don't usually post the exact same review on Amazon and my blog, but in this case I've already wasted enough time on this book and am making an exception. If interested, my Amazon review can be found by clicking here, and if you want to vote that it's helpful – to offset the "No" votes I'm sure to get – I won't stop you.)

With two Mormon candidates for US president in this election (now only one) the Mormon Church has received an unusual amount of news coverage, much of it negative. The Mormon or LDS Church is one of the fastest growing religions with over 14 million members worldwide (about half in the United States) and there are influential and successful Mormons in American politics, business, sports, entertainment, and many other areas which makes Stephen Mansfield very nervous. He wonders how a church that was so persecuted in its early days could have become such a potent symbol of American values and ideals. And, more importantly, he wonders what it might mean if a Mormon were elected president.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which has been known historically as the Mormon Church) has long made a point of saying that its truthfulness hinges on the story of Joseph Smith. As a 14 year old boy Smith claimed to have a vision where he saw God and Jesus Christ, and that through him the gospel of Jesus Christ was "restored." This also involved the translation of The Book of Mormon, which Mormons claim as holy scripture in addition to the Bible. It follows that if Joseph Smith was a fraud, the church would be as well. But if Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then the church he established is true. As evidence they offer The Book of Mormon, and missionaries invite people all over the world to read it and pray about it.

This oft-repeated claim does not go unnoticed by the perceptive Mansfield in his book The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture, and he uses it as the backbone of his attack. While he can be complimentary toward current members, his "history" of Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon is a rehash of every anti-Mormon accusation regardless of merit or source. He repeatedly uses words like "fraud" and "charlatan" when describing Smith, and dismisses The Book of Mormon as boring and unsupported by evidence. (He also conveniently glosses over the fact that Joseph Smith gave his life for his cause and died as a martyr.) Instead, he lamely asserts that the incredible success of the church is due simply to its sense of community, focus on family and education, and its organization.

I tried to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume his intentions were noble, but sadly this is a very poorly-researched book that was rushed to print before the election is over and the issue fades away. Like other anti-Mormon literature, Mansfield uses second-hand quotes and takes quotes out of context to make Mormon leaders seem extra strange, and anything factual is presented in a way to support his own bias. He uses lots of short vignettes that are supposedly real conversations happening every day in "Mormon America" that mostly play on irrational fears or cast Mormons in extreme ways. He continually gets his facts about the priesthood wrong and insinuates that polygamy is still practiced by church members. He even quotes a fictional novel to suggest Mormons claim to have planted all the sunflowers in the American west. And as a long-time member of the church I've never heard some of the "common Mormon sayings" he quotes.

I might agree with Mansfield when he says too many Mormons aren't familiar enough with doctrines (pg 56-57), but this ignores the fact that surveys show Mormons are generally more familiar with their own doctrines than non-Mormons are with theirs. He also says the church discourages its members from studying doctrine and favors "experience over doctrines" and emphasizes a "mystical inner knowing" instead, which mostly demonstrates his own lack of familiarity with his subject. He says The Book of Mormon has been "ignored as serious literature," but he's ignoring that it was recently named among the most influential books in America.

His explanation of how Mormons "became a dominant force" is weak (again, he says it's because of an emphasis on community, family, education, etc., and urges other churches to adopt such attitudes) and he questions the continuing loyalty and patriotism of members (even though he praises such attributes). He suggests a higher level of scrutiny is necessary and that the integrity of such previously honest people isn't good enough, which is really just a shameless political jab.

I do not resent or begrudge Mansfield for not sharing my religious beliefs – that's his prerogative – but there is little that is fair or unbiased in his book. He admits "Smith has come in for quite a bashing in these pages..." (pg 210), and laughably makes pretense at scholarly writing (pg xxii) even though the notes and sources at the end of the book occupy only a few short pages. (While I was reading it someone saw the unusually large font the book is printed with and asked if I was reading a children's book.) To use Mansfield's words, this book "need not have been written." (I received this book from the publisher.)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Talkin' about a revolution

I've always been more interested in growing flowers or ornamental plants than vegetables, but over the last few years that's changed. I like the idea of growing more of the food we eat and having more control over what chemicals are used on it but mostly it's just a new challenge. One thing I've noticed is that "heirloom" varieties are becoming increasingly popular. These are the kinds of plants our grandparents might have grown and saved seed from each year. While they might not be as easy or productive as some more modern hybrids, they offer the promise of better taste. At least that's the theory, but my results so far have been pretty poor and we ended up with some tomatoes that didn't taste very good. Still, I'm not ready to give up and I was really looking forward to The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by Janisse Ray which I received from Amazon Vine.

Ms. Ray recites statistics (several times) of how many varieties have been lost in just the last 100 years – and the huge numbers are disconcerting. Seed companies have bred hybrids with shelf-life and increased output in mind (frequently ignoring how they actually taste), and because they're hybrids farmers and gardeners can't save seeds from one year to the next and have them grow true. Even more distressing, companies and most farmers have turned to genetically-modified (GM) crops that have genetic traits artificially inserted for resistance to pests or – most alarmingly – chemical herbicides. All of this results in a contaminated and much-reduced gene pool and Ray argues that we have lost control of our food supply – which risks imminent collapse – and we are in need of a revolution.

I was hoping for a book that would talk about available heirloom varieties and might offer tips on the different kinds and ways to grow them. However, as Ms. Ray writes in the Introduction, "This is not a textbook on seed saving. I am looking to inspire you with my own life." (pg. xv) Instead she talks about her Georgia farm and visits to other farmers to acquire old varieties. Some of these episodes are interesting and she offers a few bits of advice, like pollinating squash flowers or saving tomato seeds or growing sweet potatoes. This is when the book really shines. But, "You won't get many of those details from me here," she writes, "My goal is simply to plant a seed." (pg 151) Much of the book is a paranoid screed against "big ag" and "big chemical" companies and how evil they and our government and justice system are (and some of her stories are indeed troublesome). "Science is worrisome when it only serves the interests of mercenaries and their employees... infecting our food supply with greed." (pg. 12) And in spite of her claim in the Preface that "I do not feel hopeless" (pg. ix) she later says "Who needs hope? ...It's not hope or love that keep me going. It's fight." (pg. 193)

Ms. Ray describes herself as a "granola" (a "back-to-the-earth" hippie who grew up post-60s) and comes off as a Luddite when it comes to technology. We get an earful of her philosophy of not flying and avoiding fossil-fuels ("Plastic is bad stuff." [pg. 129]) and basically living apart from modern society. Her attitude is militant and she calls anyone saving seeds a "revolutionary" and seems to find purpose in fighting modernity. But even she admits by the end that not all technology or corporations are evil, although she's not always sure where to draw the line. She acknowledges that sometimes hybrids combine beneficial traits and are useful, and public and private companies can do “good” (see pg. 174). (Incidentally, this is why many gardeners choose hybrids over heirlooms – they often grow better and are more reliable even if the taste is sometimes inferior. And spending a few bucks on seed packets is more convenient than the effort to save your own, as even she admits.)

Still, I don't disagree with all her arguments (mostly just her extremism) and I can certainly relate to her desire to grow older varieties. I'll continue to look for heirloom vegetables that grow well for me and that the family likes to eat. It's just a shame that information isn't found in this book.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Jamie's been saying it for months now but it just hit me the other day: our oldest is about to leave home!

Every time she'd mention it (always a little teary-eyed) I'd say, no, he's just going up to school and we'll still see him. But then I realized we'll probably only see him at Christmas or a long weekend here or there, and when he comes home next summer it'll be to leave on his mission and then he'll really be gone for two years. After that he'll go right back to school and if he sticks with his major it'll probably mean graduate school, too. So, I guess this really is it.

And it makes me feel depressed.

And I feel old, too.

And I'm reminded of a line from a song in "Fiddler on the Roof" where Tevya says "I don't remember growing older, when did they?"

But I guess this is what we raise our children to do: leave.  We just hope they don't go too far and that they come back often.

Good luck, Braiden.  We'll miss you.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Enola Gay

You may already know it but August 6th is the anniversary of the atomic bomb.  Yeah I know, not something you planned on celebrating, right?  Me neither.  But it's a part of history that interests me and something we should at least remember.  I've already reviewed books about the scientists and the bomb itself and the people of Hiroshima, as well as a really good book about the last two years of the war. Here's one about the plane and crew who actually dropped the bomb - Enola Gay: The Bombing of Hiroshima by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts.

Enola Gay: The Bombing of HiroshimaIn 1944 Air Force pilot Colonel Paul Tibbetts was approached by General Leslie Groves about assembling a unit for a super secret mission with possibilities of ending the war. He was given no guarantees for his personal safety or that it would even happen - only that if it worked he would be a hero, and if not... well, he was on his own. He assembled his unit, which eventually became known as the 509th Composite, with men he knew and trusted. They set up training in Wendover, a forsaken desert spot on the Utah/Nevada border, a place Tibbetts deemed perfect because his men would hate it. While he knew some particulars about the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb, none of his men were given much information - and they were told if they said anything they could face prison time. This book follows the progress of the project mostly from the point of view of those involved with Col. Tibbetts and the crew of the B-29 named Enola Gay. Mr. Thomas also includes some brief details of the men's lives after the war, information on a number of Japanese individuals in Hiroshima, and some background on FDR and Truman and their early involvement.

Mr. Thomas tries very hard to keep an objective view of the events which ended the war with Japan and avoids vilifying anyone. He presents the facts and recollections of those involved giving a good idea of what it was like at the time and some insights into the various personalities. It's an engrossing and easy read and the build up to the bombing is exciting and tense. It's interesting to read how dangerous just taking off from a tiny little coral island with such a large and heavy bomb was, and the process of arming it shortly before it was dropped (and the very brief second thoughts the crew member responsible for that had), and the unusual instructions the crew was given to go into a steep dive and put as much distance and speed as they could between them and the target. Dark goggles and bracing for a shockwave made them realize it was going to be big, but no one had any idea how big. Unfortunately, the book falters after that and the aftermath is treated only in the lightest manner and details are few, making it feel somewhat anti-climatic. Nonetheless, a good book I recommend for those interested.