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!

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