November 30, 2011

Review, Tom Mould, “Still, the Small Voice”

Title: Still, the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition
Author: Tom Mould
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Genre: Religion/Folklore
Year: 2011
Pages: 448
Binding: Cloth
ISBN13: 978-0-87421-817-6
Price: $39.95 (e-book $32.00)

Wordsworth, should I believe you?

"Sweet is the lore which nature brings,
Our meddling intellect
Distorts the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect."

Replace “nature” with “religion” above and you raise one of the most difficult problems I see in the study of religion, especially as I’ve studied my own faith. The wind bloweth where it listeth and we try to catch it in jars, measure it with our rulers, weigh it in our hands, graph it in our charts, fold it up and tuck it between the pages of our books. The letter alone killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

Perhaps no gospel subject perplexes me more than personal revelation. This is due to the simple fact that as a practicing Mormon, I believe it encompasses the ways God speaks to me, so it’s relevant to the way I understand my day-to-day experiences. When does dissection of such a foundational belief become “murder” so to speak, rendering the belief lifeless on the academic table? I admit this is the issue that weighed most heavy on my mind as I began reading Tom Mould’s new book, "Still, the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition." Soon enough the weight became lighter than a feather, not merely because Mould (an associate professor of anthropology and folklore at Elon University, and a non-Mormon) so ably describes LDS thought, but because he also provides fresh perspectives I hadn’t considered before. For an academic book, then, I found this one to be oddly intellectual and devotional, inhabiting a liminal space between my brain and my heart.

In this review I’ll describe the general arc of Mould’s narrative, discuss the undergirding method and assumptions, analyze its usefulness for insiders and outsiders alike, and situate it within the broader Mormon studies movement. Hopefully, when it all comes together you’ll understand why I’m calling "Still, the Small Voice" my absolute favorite Mormon book of 2011 (with all the respective weight you want to put behind that).

Outline in a Nutshell

Chapter one describes LDS thought on revelation in broad strokes—what it is, who expects it, when, why, etc. Chapter two discusses “performance norms,” or informal rules about how and when members of the Church share stories (60). Chapter three shifts to the “formal qualities” of our stories, developing a typology of prescriptive (solicited and unsolicited) and descriptive revelation. This delves into how cultural expectations help shape the ways we experience revelation, as well as the ways we relate it to others (137). Chapter four lists the “building blocks of the narrative tradition,” which are common motifs that crop up in the stories you hear in sacrament meeting and Sunday School (192). Chapter five focuses more broadly on the “echoes of culture” found in our stories, the over-riding and recurring themes our stories often revolve around, which include domestic life and church work (242). It discusses ways that region and era, age and gender impact the stories. Mould finds, for instance, that women are much more likely than men to relate stories of being prompted to protect children in the domestic sphere whereas men are much more likely to receive revelation on the location of a home (261-288; see also 316, 353, 420), following typical gender role expectations. Chapter six is unique in terms of what typically receives attention in folklore studies. Rather than paying exclusive attention to oral contexts, Mould recognizes the need to discuss the relationship between written texts like journals and official Church publications and oral story-telling (327). His rhetorical analysis of all twelve issues of the 2007 "Ensign" is fascinating (347, 349, 371), while throughout the book he includes many specific stories of personal revelation from a variety of printed sources in addition to his oral transcripts.

Mould’s Method

Mould’s over-riding goal in this book is to describe the ways Mormons understand personal revelation, but more broadly he focuses on the “social dimension of personal revelation,” which is the dimension of sharing our stories with each other:

"Experience and narrative are drawn together in a complex relationship guided by the abilities of the human mind to comprehend the divine; the communicative abilities to express the ambiguous, the visceral, and the spiritual; and the cultural norms and expectations for narrative, performance, and the construction of social identity" (381).

This is a fancy way of saying that Mould explores Mormon beliefs and values by paying attention to the stories we tell each other about what God tells us. The stories he analyzes come from official Church publications ("Ensign," "Preach My Gospel," all the way back to stories in the "Juvenile Instructor") Mormon diaries, folklore archives, transcripts of personal interviews he conducted as part of his research, his notes from sacrament meeting talks, and a host of other sources. (Speaking of transcripts, many of them are based on his own recordings and some go on for multiple pages. How cool would a Kindle book be with embedded recordings?)

Note that “folklore” in the academic sense doesn’t equate to “falselore.” Folklore, according to Mould’s view, is assumed to be “true” in the sense that it actually reflects the values of the tellers and listeners, though it may or may not “be supported by historical evidence” (4-5). Folklore studies take a close look at questions of “artistic performance”; the structure of a narrative, common motifs, the impact of genre, morphing, etc. (5). He neither accepts a folktale at face-value, nor does he dismiss the apparently fantastic as beyond the realm of possibility. Did I mention he’s not a Mormon? This approach bears directly on my initial fear—that academic study simply has little to say on the ways I feel the Spirit (which I admit should not be the guiding expectation for reading a book like this). As my description suggests, I detected three strategies Mould uses to compensate for the ways that the “letter killeth”:

1. Separating “temporal” from “spiritual” revelation, the former dealing with other “facets of life, including daily, ongoing decisions” as James E. Faust described (40), the latter bearing directly on the truth-claims of LDS doctrinal propositions. This may seem like an easy out for Mould, but he found that “in the folk narrative tradition of personal revelation…temporal revelations dominate” (40). He still spends a few pages describing conversion narratives and testimonies, but the bulk of the book focuses on the “temporal” (see also 40-5, 244, 328, 383). In order to show you how inclusive Mould’s book is, here are the index entries listed under “themes in personal revelation narratives” (447): children, church work, conversion and baptism, danger, death, finding a home, genealogy, guidance finding scripture, guidance speaking, healing, helping others, marriage, missionary work, preparation, spirit children, temple work, travel.

2. Focusing the assessment of personal revelation narrative accounts on the values they communicate, rather than attempting history-directed debunkery. He recognizes that “folklore can distort [values] through accentuation and omission,” but folklore theory helps analyze such distortions as well (5). One quick example of how this plays out: Mould relates the oft-told story of Wilford Woodruff, who was prompted to move the wagon his family was sleeping in during the night. Had he not immediately obeyed his family would have been destroyed by a fallen tree. Woodruff’s account contains elements found in more recent “prompting” stories, including the fact that obedience saved the day. In later iterations of this story, however, a new motif common to later “prompting” stories emerges. Woodruff is depicted as initially hesitant to follow the prompting, waiting until he is prompted multiple times before obeying. Absent from the initial tellings, this new motif is retroactively added by current members filling in the gaps with their memories (197-201).

3. Approaching narratives from an “emic,” or insider, perspective (4). This is an “experience-centered approach that honors, rather than dismisses, the belief systems under study” (6). Mould does a remarkable job in this regard. He’s finely attuned to LDS concepts, repeatedly helping the outsider by providing descriptions of LDS jargon and culture, describing the standard works, current structure of LDS worship services, pass-along cards, “greenies,” “the Y,” etc. etc. He doesn’t always nail it—he says D&C 124 was received in 1841 “in the specific context of having to abandon Nauvoo” rather than Missouri (408); conflates the word “atonement” with “repentance and forgiveness” (217); refers to Joseph F. Smith as Joseph Fielding Smith (301), and once refers to “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” as “the Proclamation on Marriage” (261) . These nit-picky errors only serve to show how often Mould is right on the emic money; they’re the only glaring errors I noticed in the whole book, and they’re negligible.

Mould for Insiders and Outsiders

Due to the emic approach, Mould’s analysis can actually help members of the church better assess the stories they’ve heard, the stories they tell, and even the ways they experience personal revelation. (See especially the discussion of reactions to failed revelations on 176.) Of course, it also means that some of the included narratives irritated me, like the MTC trainer who tells about a missionary who takes a shotgun blast to the chest, only to rise up and convert the would-be murderer who later becomes a Stake President “or something like that” (214). Plenty of other stories inspired me, like the “white-haired sister by the name of Needum” who showed up in the nick of time to administer a healing blessing to a dying baby, having “been set apart in the temple to bless the sick with her prayers” (217-8).

Mould notes that one of the biggest benefits of writing as an outsider is the “silent train” phenomenon, whereby insiders sometimes overlook aspects of the culture which are “so normalized that they are ignored” (404). Mould frequently makes the sort of observations I’ve come to expect from careful outsiders who take insiders seriously. One particularly striking example is his likening of family stories to Mormon ritual:

Family stories draw relatives closer together, binding them in story just as sacred temple rites such as sealings and baptisms of the dead bind them in eternity (330; this idea seems to be implicitly articulated by a Church member on 336, though Mould as observer explicitly makes the point in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to me).
Mormons will feel at home with the stories he relates, even the cringe-worthy ones (he knows many of us may clench our teeth as little Primary children recite parrot-monies, p. 234) . But what about the academic application? He isn’t always as careful to make the academic jargon understandable to Mormons, who perhaps aren’t his main target audience. The sometimes-pedantic descriptions can sound pretty funny at times: “Dreams and promptings are part of the same revelatory phenomenon. A thrice-repeated revelatory dream is equal to a thrice-repeated prompt” (203). Seeing the process of revelation depicted on Mould’s charts and graphs may seem a bit much, but they are useful tools for depicting his points. These elements signal that Mould’s book is intended for the wider audience of folklore studies, and it makes several important contributions to that field using Mormons as the subject through which broader principles are explored. Sometimes this wider application is quite jarring, as when he suddenly begins writing in archive-ese for a page (216). But more often the application is natural, as when he situates the common appearance of the number three in Mormon narratives with broader Western culture (202-203). In contrast with prior Mormon-themed folklore studies, Mould focuses on the concept of personal revelation, rather than particular categories of lore, like the Three Nephites or J. Golden Kimball stories. Theme, rather than story type, drives the book; something other folklorists could emulate to great advantage (25).

Mould and Mormon Studies
When I make a reflexive initial assessment of a new book I consider a few currently fashionable expectations about what constitutes “good academic scholarship,” or good Mormon studies. Having now read the book I can confidently say Mould knocks it out of the park on almost every point. First, Mormon studies is heavily dominated by insiders who hope to be joined by more outsiders. Enter Mould.

Second, Mormon studies have been dominated by the genre of history; most of the existing work focuses on 19th and early 20th century Mormonism. Mould focuses on the contemporary church while still paying due attention to the history, and makes use of new resources like Preach My Gospel, recent General Conference talks, church magazines, and member interviews.

Third, good Mormon studies not only says “look, scholarship on Mormonism can be quality scholarship like yours.” More than that, it says “look, scholarship on Mormonism can make an important contribution to your field in addition to its Mormon content.” In other words, this isn’t an academic book about Mormons, it’s a book about folklore using Mormons as a lens through which broader principles are examined. Of course, folklore studies have been doing this sort of thing for decades; folklore’s focus on value over “truth claims” anticipated the “new, new Mormon history” by a few decades (see 4-5, and esp. 242).

Fourth, Mould himself recognizes his book is limited by the relative homogeneity of his sources (9). For lack of space and resources, Mould wasn’t able to fully explore variations in “other regions and other countries.” He points to a “nascent body of scholarship” trying to pay due attention to these wider contexts and issues a call for more attention to “social, cultural, and religious contexts around the world [in order to] provide a more accurate picture of Mormonism as a global religion” (386). The closest he comes to such analysis are his discussions on the importance of dreams in Latin American Mormon contexts (50). But this is a wonderful first step, sets the grounds for many exciting prospects to come.


Returning to my initial concern, the one about how dissection of personal revelation carries the potential of leaving it dead on the table. Mould repeatedly analyzes how culture shapes the stories we tell and raises the question of whether this makes our stories natural, purely cultural, or whether they can be considered to be revelation from God (139, 149, 185, 196). He recognizes the trickiness of analyzing truth claims (321-3, 227, 383. Above all, Mould is trying to advance “a theory of interpretation that validates both personal experiences and shared cultural patters” (324, emphasis in orig.) He wants to bracket the truth-claim issue, leaving the reader the space to form a conclusion:

Experience dictates the “data” one can draw upon to narrate, while personal choice guides which of those experiences one chooses to share. Both reflect the hand of God as well as of men and women. Revelatory experiences reflect God’s concerns for people’s well-being as well as people’s own concerns in what they choose to pray about…Analyzing the themes in personal revelation narratives, therefore, can reveal both the intent of God in heaven and the concerns of people on Earth. For LDS members, the former is of greater interest. For the modest scope of this book, it is the latter that takes center stage (243).

There is a bit of blood involved in the dissection here, but Mould wields his scalpel with care. Believe it or not, this over-long review is a mere snapshot of Mould’s excellent work. Despite some very tough competition, and quite surprisingly to me, "Still, the Small Voice" is my absolutely favorite Mormon book of 2011 (with all the respective weight you want to put behind that).

November 22, 2011

Review: N.T. Wright, "Simply Jesus"

Title:  Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters
Author: N.T. Wright
Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: Christianity
Year: 2011
Pages: 240
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-06-208439-2
Price: $24.99
There are a lot of great things I could tell you about N.T. Wright’s latest book Simply Jesus. I could praise the way Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, clarifies Jesus’s claims about “the Kingdom of God” by situating him alongside Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Herod the Great, and Simon Bar-Giora–historical figures who, before and after Jesus, declared their kingdoms (105-117). I could analyze Wright’s seven-point typology of the Exodus as he depicts it playing out in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth (63-66, 174-176, etc.). I could explain the way Wright challenges the notion that Jesus was simply a good moral teacher by placing Jesus’s actions and claims within their ancient cultural context, trying to discover what he thought he was doing based on the very Hebrew scriptures he quoted and enacted (166, 170, etc.). I could dissect Wright’s employment of key Old Testament texts regarding the coming Kingdom of God, texts which Wright views as crucial to understanding Jesus’s claims and various reactions to them (151-166). I could engage in debates about properly interpreting the identity of the “servant” in the book of Isaiah (153-158). I could even hook you in by outlining the interesting, often compelling ways Wright tries to answer questions like “Look out the window…If you think Jesus is already installed as king of the world, why is the world still such a mess?” (198).

Indeed, there is plenty of stuff in Wright’s latest book which makes for compelling review fodder. Instead of any of the above, I’ll describe the clever central metaphor Wright employs throughout Simply Jesus in order to paint “A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.”

Wright knows there has been a ton of debate about who Jesus was, who he believed he was, who others believed he was, and a host of other questions. Why write another book to add to the pile? Wright answers by employing a metaphor of “the perfect storm” (13). As the film of that title depicts, a fishing boat called the Andrea Gail was trapped between a cold front pushed in by a western wind on one side and a high pressure system coming from another direction–perfect ingredients for a huge storm. But a third factor, the left-overs from Hurricane Grace, swept in from the Atlantic to complete the perfect, that is utterly disastrous, storm. Wright uses this as an analogy for current debates about Jesus. The “high-pressure system” of conservative Christianity’s literalist biblical interpretations meets up with a “skeptical ‘western wind’,” which depicts Jesus as a man who wanted to teach good moral stories to people, or perhaps form a radical social program, all apart from heavenly direction (17-18). The third element is “the sheer historical complexity of speaking about Jesus” in the context of “first-century Palestinian Judaism,” the hurricane which completes the triple threat (20). Wright separates this third element from the second element: “the western wind of modernist skepticism and the eastern hurricane of historical puzzle are not the same thing” (22). This is his way of easing the minds of readers who believe serious scholarship is only a covert way of putting down religious faith (22). Rather than destroying faith, Wright understands careful historical and textual examination as the best way to demonstrate Jesus’s initial message, as well as his contemporary relevance.

Thus, context is king throughout Wright’s narrative of Jesus’s ministry, which is also framed using the “perfect storm” metaphor. Wright situates the trial and crucifixion of Jesus within the triple threat of pressure from the Roman Empire and the thousand-year-old expectations of Israel concerning deliverance from oppression, with God’s hurricane-like overriding plan executed through Jesus completing the ingredients (13-14; 151-152). In all of this Wright emphasizes Jesus’s Kingdom message, by which God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. Wright emphasizes this theme over and over:
“First, it will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people ‘how to get to heaven.’ That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’s public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave ‘earth’ behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on earth; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality” (144-145; see also 148, 184, 192, 194).
Reading Wright feels like curling up next to a fire on a dark, brisk night in a little cabin at the edge of the world. I’m not quite sure exactly why, but that’s how I feel when I’m reading Wright. I really like how he works with the New Testament. Here’s another excerpt:
“Layer upon layer it comes, dense and rich within the texts, echo upon echo, allusion and resonance tumbling over one another, so that for those with ears to hear it becomes un-missable, a crescendo of questions to which in the end there can be only one answer. Why are you speaking like this? Are you the one who is to come? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? What sign can you show us? Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners? Where did this man get all this wisdom? How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Who are you? Why do you not follow the traditions? Do the authorities think he’s the Messiah? Can the Messiah come from Galilee? Why are you behaving unlawfully? Who then is this? Aren’t we right to say that you’re a Samaritan and have a demon? What do you say about him? By what right are you doing these things? Who is this Son of Man? Should we pay tribute to Caesar? And climactically: Are you the king of the Jews? What is truth? Where are you from? Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One? Then finally, too late for answers, but not too late for irony: Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us! If you’re the Messiah, why don’t you come down from that cross? [...] And Jesus had his own questions. Who do you say I am? Do you believe in the Son of Man? Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink? How do the scribes say that the Messiah is David’s son? Couldn’t you keep watch with me for a single hour? And finally and horribly: My God, my God, why did you abandon me? [...] The reason there were so many questions, in both directions, was that–as historians have concluded for many years now–Jesus fitted no ready-made categories” (167-168, emphasis in original).

One particular way Wright has tried to refresh the story of Jesus for the present tense is by creating his own New Testament translation: The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). It was released in October 2011 and can be had for around 20 bucks, a real steal. Without calling attention to the fact, Wright uses this new translation throughout Simply Jesus to great effect:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and James’s brother John, and led them off up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Then, astonishingly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them. They were talking with Jesus.
Peter just had to say something. “Master,” he said to Jesus, “it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters here–one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Then there came a voice out of the cloud. “This is my dear son,” said the voice, “and I am delighted with him. Pay attention to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were scared out of their wits. Jesus came up and touched them.
“Get up,” he said, “and don’t be afraid.”
When they raised their eyes, they saw nobody except Jesus, all by himself. (Matt. 17:1-8; Simply Jesus, p. 142; cf. Kingdom New Testament, p. 34-35)

Wright has a ton of books out there. You could just as well begin with any of them to find out if you’re interested in Wright’s typical approach. Many of them, including Simply Jesus, attempt to merge ”the academic and the pastoral” to educate and inspire a wider audience (ix). The book has a mere seven asterisk footnotes, includes several useful chronologies (62, 106, 108, 113) and highlights the poetic nature of Hebrew scripture verses through formatting. Oddly, Simply Jesus includes a handy scripture citation index but lacks a topical index. I guess I could criticize him for making yet another book on some of the same themes he’s discussed in previous books like Surprised by Hope (2008) and Simply Christian (2006). All his books cross paths with each other. At the same time, I once again found myself having fun with this latest effort, losing track of time in the pages. Wright overcomes overlap by providing fresh metaphors, using different biblical texts, and by referring the reader to his other work when too much content overlap looms. Simply Jesus showcases Wright’s characteristic wit and charm, his perceptive exegesis and theological biases, and his overriding sense of urgency for making Jesus better understood and thus more relevant in his ancient and our present contexts.

If you’re on the fence about this one, HarperCollins has a nice preview of the book available here. I reviewed Wright’s previous book (Scripture and the Authority of God) here. Given the choice between the two I’d start with Simply Jesus, although I enjoyed both books.

November 15, 2011

Review: Davis Bitton, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives”

Title: Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives 
Author: Davis Bitton
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Biography
Year: 2011
Pages: 197
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-123-4
Price: $19.95 (Kindle, $9.95)
The fluidity of personality; the fallibility of perception; ambiguous memory construction; the happenstance instances of recording; the ravages of time. Just a few minor things to consider when trying to recall important events in my own life. And if I face such challenges regarding the things I’ve personally witnessed, how much more cautious should I be when dealing with history? With a particular historical figure? Named Joseph Smith. Who was he? So many different Josephs to choose from.

This is the general lesson LDS historian Davis Bitton hoped to convey in his book, Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011). In each of ten chapters, Bitton traces “how Joseph Smith has appeared from different points of view. It is the image of Joseph Smith rather than the man himself” Bitton seeks to uncover (ix). Beneath the “different, flickering, not always compatible views” of Smith, Bitton still maintains that “Joseph Smith was either a true, authorized prophet of God or he was not. In recounting his visions he either spoke the truth or he did not” (x). From this introductory statement I anticipated a book of pro et con arguments, but Bitton is able to present much more variety throughout the book.

Bitton begins with “Joseph Smith as Hero” and situates him “against the backdrop of nineteenth-century heroism” (1). Here Bitton draws on various “attribute” lists from other scholars and contrasts anecdotes about Smith with Andrew Jackson. In chapter two, “A Prophet—In the Book of Mormon,” Bitton locates scripture verses which seem to match instances from Smith’s biography, although he is careful to distance himself from certain scholars who “suggest that the book is only a reflection of Joseph Smith’s life.” (These include William D. Morain, Robert D. Anderson, and Dan Vogel, p. 25). Here Bitton also leaves open the possibility that the Book of Mormon’s “process of translation was sufficiently flexible that he used words and feelings of his own precisely at points where they were appropriate in describing other prophets who, human beings after all, had anticipated some of his experiences and emotions” (25-26). The next chapter carries the same approach through the rest of the LDS Standard Works, pointing out biographical similarities with various biblical figures including Abraham and Paul. Some of Bitton’s connections here are a little stretched, but he also shows how Smith himself and other Latter-day Saints up to the present have explicitly identified such parallels (27-40).

As a chapter, “In the Mormon Folk Memory” is a little weak on folklore analysis. Bitton proposes a loose “taxonomy” in which to situate various recollections of Smith, including human qualities, physical strength, miracles, doctrinal sayings, and prophecies. Here as elsewhere, Bitton briefly discusses problems historians face when analyzing such sources: “Anecdotes about Joseph Smith told in later generations are not, in and of themselves, a reliable source of Latter-day Saint doctrine…But rejecting all later testimony out of hand, perhaps on the grounds that the testifier is not available for cross-examination, is going too far” (54-55). He offers a weak rubric: “Many of the anecdotes ring true. If they can be pinned down close to the actual time and place they were supposed to have occurred, if they are consistent with the rest of what is known about the Prophet, and especially if there is confirmation from other evidence, they have credibility” (55). He also adds that such recollections are useful, if not for direct access to a reliable past, “then for [understanding] his popular image among his people” (55). The subsections on “prophecy” and “doctrinal sayings” and practice and policy” would make for fascinating study. Imagine a work which compares these with Islamic hadith, for instance.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter, and most representative of the entire collection, is “Joseph Smith and the Scholars” (115-135). It’s a narrative bibliography of scholarship on Joseph Smith, beginning with pre-academic attempts like Charles Mackay’s The Mormons, With Memoirs of the Life and Death of Joseph Smith (1852) and ending with various academic books and articles written in the 1990s. Knowing Brother Joseph Again is an updated version of Bitton’s earlier book Images of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1996). Hence my confusion when I read that Donna Hill’s 1977 Joseph Smith, the First Mormon "is perhaps the most satisfactory full biography yet to appear” (122). Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Dan Vogel’s Making of a Prophet are included in a footnote (133), and Bitton’s introduction identifies RSR as “the most thoughtful full biography” of Smith (1). Bitton passed away in 2007 before completing the manuscript, which was completed by Kofford Books under JoAn Bitton’s approval (publisher’s preface).[1] It isn’t clear which pre-2007 references were added by Bitton or the publisher. The footnote references are usually limited to the early 2000s with a few exceptions, which include multiple Kofford Books publications and the recent collection of Eliza R. Snow poetry published by BYU Studies.

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Bitton’s approach is somewhat uneven, switching between disinterested chronicler, open advocate, and devil’s advocate. His temperate assessment of Fawn Brodie’s Smith biography (“We do not agree with its conclusions and basic interpretation but think it silly to deny that it possesses positive qualities,” 120) is offset by a footnote dismissing John L. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire (“For my negative review of Brooke’s misguided polemic, which predictably was lauded by secular professional historians and current anti-Mormons, see BYU Studies…” 134). Moreover, Bitton’s footnotes don’t always point to the most up-to-date sources even for the time period in which he wrote. The chapter concludes with a brief list of roles Smith in which scholars place Joseph including politician, magician, mystic, psychopath, genius, and prophet (130).

He concludes this chapter by noting that “Most believing Mormons are unfamiliar with these scholarly reappraisals. To the extent that they might find such analyses convincing, however, they would simply insist on combining models…Cutting through to the heart of the matter, they are usually content to view Joseph Smith as a prophet” (130-131). Turning from this thought, Bitton’s epilogue reads a bit like an Andy Rooney piece (the more serious-themed ones, not the shopping lists/minor annoyance stuff). Here a historian sits back, reflecting briefly on the presuppositions and assumptions people, including himself, bring to Joseph Smith. More specifically, he outlines an “undisclosed syllogism” which he believes people always employ when considering the question of whether Joseph Smith was a “prophet,” as opposed to having strictly academic concerns: “Major premise: a true prophet would not do X. Minor premise: Joseph Smith did X. Conclusion: Joseph Smith was not a true prophet…Such logic is indeed airtight, but the conclusion is embedded in the rigid definition of the major premise” (139-140). As a historian, Bitton notes, he can only go so far with the methodological tools available.[2] But as a believer, he hopes for more:

“Back in the days…before the flattening of our reality into a stark, naturalistic, horizontal plane, there used to be a name for the leap, the signing on to something magnificently demanding and all-encompassing, the living out of something as if it were true, the growing conviction of the reality of things hoped for, things unseen. It used to be called faith” (140).

Bitton didn’t seek to be exhaustive in this book, although he included a 33-page “Select Bibliography” as of November 2005 (143). It includes references to primary sources, books, articles, theses, dissertations, church magazines, and unpublished papers specifically covering Joseph Smith. For Smith aficionados there isn’t much new in this volume, and it certainly isn’t Bitton’s magnum opus. Bitton’s is a thought-provoking, if uneven, overview of various ways Joseph Smith has been known by others during his own lifetime up to the present day. I’d certainly feel comfortable recommending this book to those members of the Church who—only being familiar with the version of Joseph Smith depicted in official Church publications and films—would profit from a more complex view of the prophet.



1. See James B. Allen, “Davis Bitton: His Scholarship and Faith,” FARMS Review Vol.19 No. 1 (2007): 1—8, for a tribute to Bitton.

2. For an interesting discussion about methodological considerations when dealing with religion in academic research, see “Finding the Presence in Mormon History: An Interview with Susanna Morrill, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Robert Orsi,” Dialogue, Interviews and Conversations, June 4, 2011.

November 11, 2011

Review: Stephen Carter, "What of the Night? Personal Essays"

Periodically, (usually when a collection is published) we see reflections on the literary genre of the "personal essay" in Mormonism. Here's mine. The footnotes provide links, which themselves provide further suggestions on the subject if you're interested. 

Title: What of the Night? Personal Essays
Author: Stephen Carter
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Personal Essay
Year: 2010
Pages: 168
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-0-9843603-1-4
Price: $14.95 (Kindle, $2.99)

Having grown up Mormon I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a “testimony” was. Like breath, sleep, and family, testimony’s a natural part of my life. The genesis is lost to me, but I can remember instances when my conception of “testimony” was sharpened. As a kid in Primary I learned that a testimony ought to be a list of things I know are “true,” and these things were all things I’d learned about at Church. Usually us Primary kids would also sneak a few extra things onto the end of our testimony lists, like the fact that we loved our brothers and sisters and dads and moms. As I got a little older I learned we could include a personal experience or two in our testimonies. I usually enjoyed listening to these ones a little more, but the list still came at the end as it should; the general thrust of testimony remained the same.

This changed a little when a seminary teacher parsed different ways we “bear” our testimony. He said we bear it by speaking it out loud, but he mentioned a few new things for me to consider. First, “bearing” testimony can also simply refer to the way we are, the way others see us. Jesus said to be the light of the world, so we bear our testimonies by loving and serving others, he said. Then he said sometimes we have to “bear testimony” as a burden—we have to bear the weight of it, bear up under the everyday struggles of life in faith. Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow.

Several years later this latter sense of “bearing testimony” came to mind as I read a personal essay by Eugene England called “The Mormon Cross.”[1] It was written prior to 1978, before the LDS priesthood was finally extended again to blacks, and England bore witness in this last sense, and said the Church itself bore the weight of a cross he hoped would someday be lifted. And in some ways that particular cross has been lifted, but when England wrote it he was still bearing up under great weight. That seems to me to be the predominant characteristic of current Mormon personal essays, which can be found in practically every LDS-themed publication—Dialogue, Sunstone, Segullah, even BYU Studies. Such essays, like England’s, relate personal stories including personal reflection, but not necessarily ultimate resolution as we typically read in official church publications like the Ensign. “Essay,” which I’m told comes from the French essayer, means an attempt.[2] Swimming deep in the perplexity rather than floating high above in the omniscient cloud, is the object. This is another way Mormons testify, and I'm happy we have independent publishers like Zarahemla Books to provide more outlets for testimony. (Minor complaint: I thought the font—large and typewriterish—distracts from the feeling the pieces are meant to evoke. The cover design is cool, though.)

The roots of this latter-day way of bearing testimony are said to run deep. In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism Donlu DeWitt Thayer points out that the current literary form of LDS personal essay was absent in the early days of the Church, despite the proliferation of written diaries and sermons. “By the middle of the twentieth century, however,” she writes, “the Church was essentially at peace with its external surroundings, and a few LDS writers opened the era of the Mormon personal essay.”[3] It’s interesting to think of such personal essays as fruits of the environment in which they grow, with all the influence that entails. Today’s best Mormon personal essays, according to Eugene England, are “rooted in the extremes of honestly revealed feeling and experience, from doubt and inadequacy and anguish to exalted faith and love and encounters with divinity.”[4]

It’s been about a decade since England passed away, but his description of the personal essay still holds up, even in a personal essay written about him, as found in Stephen Carter’s recent collection of personal essays, What of the Night? In “My Brief Tour of England: My Year With Gene,” Carter gives his first-hand account of being England’s office assistant (11-25). Constant phone calls and busy work under Gene’s command are offset by hugs and prayers, and later, cancer, confusion and death. Inspired by England, Carter has become a powerful personal essayist in his own right. In addition to completing an MFA and PhD from the University of Alaska—Fairbanks, Carter, current Sunstone editor, has won multiple awards from the Eugene England Personal Essay Competition.[5] His work was included among the “Best American Spiritual Writing” in 2006.

In this collection Carter seems to dwell slightly more often on the “doubt and inadequacy” side of England’s description as opposed to the “exalted faith and love” side, although his main aim is to “dwell in the tensions” (29). “The Weight of Priesthood” is a masterful rumination on his shifting understanding of the power of the priesthood (33-62). Several essays, in addition to the one about England, deal with death. In “Last Supper” (91-96) he tells the story of a couple killed by a drunk driver, and his prose sings: “Outside, the snow was frozen to the ground; the streets black and slick with ice, reflecting the glow of the streetlamps. Wayne and Elaine have left a centuries-old station wagon, a house with bread and milk still in the fridge, credit-card offers in the mailbox, and maybe no will” (93).

Negotiating relationships between those who leave the church and those who remain is another recurring theme. “The Departed” (115-130) laments for promising members who leave the Church, “Writing As Repentance” includes responses from friends who wonder how Carter can write what he writes and still care to remain Mormon (159-168). But “Smoke and Mirrors” pulled me in more than any other essay on this theme, from the first sentence, too: “Sometimes revelation works through a void. Like the day I realized that I knew next to nothing about my little brother” (62). I can’t relate the strength of this essay in a review, and I can’t spoil the ending, but it really resonated with me. Anyone who knows close family members or friends who have left the Church will find much to identify with here.

Back in 2008 Carter popped up in an online discussion about personal essays. He described his overall reason for writing. I’ll close the review with his description because I think it captures quite well what Carter tries to do in What of the Night? These are essays without many neat endings. Plenty of reflection without much ultimate resolution. But Carter bears his testimony throughout the collection, his testimony of the plan of salvation; the messiness and the hope:

“The essays I’ve published have taken months of my life. Ernest Hemingway’s quote: ‘Writing is easy. You just sit at the typewriter and bleed’ sums up my experience well…The reason to put writing in front of a lot of people is to say, “Here’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I’ve followed a line of thought (or an experience) through difficult territory. I’ve questioned myself; I’ve made false starts and hit dead ends. It’s taken me some time to find a way out the back of conventional wisdom and maxims to find something that resonates deeply with me. I know that you haven’t had my experience or followed this path, so I’m going to do my utmost to communicate it to you.”[6]
It's clear that Carter is doing a little more than just communicating his own experiences, though. This is where Mormon testimony bearing is most obvious in his approach. The fact that the essays most often include a message, a take-away, however implicit, indicates that he hopes his stories demand something of the reader, too. He doesn't always pull this off successfully, and I wasn't always convinced that a given point was true to my own experience in Mormonism. But that's because much of the time Carter is trying to figure out, even while expressing, his own place in Mormonism. And the bearing of such testimony seems very Mormon to me. I'm glad Stephen's still here.



[1] Eugene England, "The Mormon Cross," Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8:1 (Spring 1973), 78-86. England's book Making Peace has some great stuff too. It's available for free at Signature's online library.

[2] Kris Wright, “An Eye For an I: Looking at the Personal Essay in Mormon Literature,”, 6 February 2006.

[3] “Literature, Mormon Writers of: Personal Essays,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992).

[4] Wright, ibid.

[5] I believe this contest has since been renamed as the Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay contest through Irreantum.

[6] Comments section of Kristine Haglund, “Goldilocks and the Art of the Personal Essay,”, 18 December 2008.

November 6, 2011

Review: Conor Cunningham, “Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong”

Title: Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong
Author: Conor Cunningham
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Genre: Religion/Science
Year: 2011
Pages: 580
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-8028-4838-3
Price: $35
Conor Cunningham wants to “move beyond the silly impasse brought about by fundamentalism (whether secular or religious)” in regards to the legacy of Charles Darwin (xi). Many atheists and plenty of Christians “tend to sing from the same hymn sheet” on this point: that “Darwinian evolution threatens to annihilate religion at its very root” (xvi). Cunningham disagrees. While Daniel Dennett has called organic evolution a “dangerous idea,” Cunningham calls it a “pious idea.” To be more precise, Cunningham outlines his understanding of evolution as promulgated by “ultra-Darwinists,” which he admits is quite dangerous—not merely to religion, but to the scientific method generally as well. He argues that religious fundamentalists and fundamentalist atheists alike misconstrue what organic evolution entails, and he outlines the boundaries of their misconstrual. Finally, he offers a different way to conceive of evolution from a Christian perspective, that evolution itself can help us understand God and ourselves. In this review I’ll briefly explain Cunningham’s main points, explain why I think he could have done a better job, and offer a few suggestions for further reading. 
Cunningham’s Basic Outline:
Cunningham’s opening chapter is a fun exercise in intellectual history. He describes some precursors to Darwin to present a basic overview of the intellectual pool Darwin was swimming in when he developed his theory of evolution. He boils Darwin’s notion of evolution down to three main elements: variation, reproduction, and heritability (20). The next three chapters cover the main debates still raging within Darwinism: the idea that natural selection works at many levels (not simply at the gene, organism, or group level); the question of whether natural selection is all-powerful or whether it is one among multiple mechanisms shaping the material world as we know it; and whether evolution involves direction or is purely random. Throughout these chapters he discusses the danger of believing in the so-called “God of the gaps,” by pointing to yet-to-be-solved puzzles of science as the places where God can be detected. Such gaps change; this is not a firm foundation, he says.
Chapter 5 extends the discussion to wider applications of Darwin’s theory to fields like eugenics, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. Here he takes a long pause to explain one of his most important points: the sketchy epistemology which an ultra-Darwinist account or evolution leaves us with. In a nutshell, if we’re merely material evolved creatures and our cognitive abilities are evolved too, then survival, not “truth,” would be the reigning principle in our thought. We could easily experience “true lies,” (215, 225).
Chapter 6 takes a glance at the “science versus religion” myth while dissecting naturalism, or the belief that all truth can be explained through analysis of and on the terms of the “material” world. Whereas methodological naturalism simply brackets the question on undetectable entities (i.e., provides explanations without resorting to God as part of the story), ontological naturalism goes a step further. Even philosophy must move aside: science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be” (266). Cunningham sees certain proponents of “Intelligent Design” operating under that same assumption—an assumption which he sees as inimical to religious faith.
Cunningham’s Rhetorical Approach:
Evaluating the rhetorical success of a book is one of the most subjective things a book reviewer can do. But the ways in which an argument is made often matter just as much, if not more, than the actual points themselves. The Lord may “looketh upon the heart,” but we’re often checking the outward appearance. How we say stuff can impact how people receive what we say. Cunningham is well aware of rhetorical issues, as when he praises the effectiveness of Voltaire’s satirical approach to Leibniz, (90-91). His own approach is often snappy and funny, as with his epigram, “Yabba dabba doo! –Fred Flintstone,” at the beginning of chapter five (179), which must refer to the way he describes Richard Dawkins’s understanding of human nature as being “Neanderthal” (236). While I chuckled about this, I also recalled his stated desire from his introduction to “move beyond the silly impasse” (xi). His snappiness is fun, but not very friendly.
Though Cunningham prizes seeking consensus (in fact, he corresponded with many self-proclaimed atheist natural scientists in the making of his book), he enters the fray with some barbs and jabs which will likely contribute more to war than discussion. In his introduction he points out that one logical end of ultra-Darwinism would be Holocaust denial (xvi), and while I think, on logical grounds he ends up sustaining this contention (220, 268), he could have named any human event there, so this seems like an unfair scare tactic.
In other words, I really liked what Cunningham was trying to do, but I didn’t particularly like how he tried to do it. Not only rhetorically, but organizationally. It seemed quite sloppy. Throughout this medley on evolution, science, and Christianity, Cunningham slips back and forth between intellectual history, philosophy, theology, advocacy, and criticism—all without placing enough signposts along the road for me and without much balance. His sometimes-funny-or-lyrical, always-verbose points can be found more concisely stated by other authors. (For instance, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article called “Religion and Science” which covers most of the important ground in much less space.) Interspersed throughout the book are discussions of all current hot topics in discussions about science and religion (memes, selfish genes, consciousness, emergence, brain science, etc.) but they appear at random. Cunningham’s final chapter is entirely an exercise of academic Christian theology, which I thought was interesting (he ties in ideas like Creation, the Eucharist and transubstantiation, forgiveness, atonement, etc.), but it somehow felt tacked on. Or perhaps the book was tacked on to it? Or I’m not quick enough to fill in the blanks.
Maybe this book is sort of like geekfan-type stuff—like the extended, live version recording of a band’s entire repertoire which die-hard fans must have, but that average listeners won’t fancy. For LDS readers in particular, Cunningham’s allegiance to the Nicene creed and creation ex nihilo won’t seem to suffice in reconciling Darwin with Christianity. Interestingly, LDS biologist, scholar, awesome-fiction writer Steven Peck has explored many of the same issues Cunningham discusses. At the end of this post I recommend a few of his pieces, alongside Cunningham’s book, which, for all its foibles, covers some fascinating ground. If you’re into that kind of stuff then you’ll enjoy Cunningham’s book. If you’re looking for an even-handed overview of the evolution/creationism debate, this book isn’t the droid you’re looking for. If you’re already part of the ongoing discussions, or if you feel like just jumping right in, Cunningham has a lot of great stuff in Darwin’s Pious Idea.
Cunningham’s BBC documentary “Did Darwin Kill God” can be found here, along with some other interesting discussions of the book.
Steven Peck, “Randomness, contingency, and faith: Is there a science of subjectivity?” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. Vol. 38 (2003): 5-24.
Steven Peck, “The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit?,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought  Vol. 38 (2005): 36-64, .pdf available here.
Steven Peck, Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, 43, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-36, .pdf available here.

October 28, 2011

Review: Steven Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”

Title: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Author: Steven Pinker
Publisher: Viking
Genre: Science/Philosophy
Year: 2011
Pages: 832
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780670022953
Price: $40

Steven Pinker strongly disagrees with the Beatles. Love, he argues, is certainly not “all you need.” At least, not if you’re interested in decreasing human violence (592). But judging by Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he’s also not a cynical pessimist. He’d more likely sing along with another Beatles classic:
It’s getting better all the time…
Better, Better, Better.
It’s getting better all the time…
Better Better Better.
Getting so much better all the time!
Better Angels is physically and intellectually thick, but it’s actually tackling a few very basic things like anger, love, empathy, and reason. Are humans inherently good or evil? Rather than presenting a history of human thought on that question, Pinker makes his own case that human violence has decreased alongside an increase in human intelligence.
Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist, includes this important caveat: there seems to be some danger in focusing on a silver lining if we overlook the very real and very serious ongoing suffering and violence in the world. Especially in the “developing world,” Pinker notes, many have employed shocking numbers while “raising money and attention” for noble causes. “But there is a moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just to maintain credibility,” he argues. “The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are” (320).
The twentieth century has been referred to as the bloodiest in human history. Pinker’s method combines statistics with narratives to analyze this claim. He is calling for, and trying to exemplify, a more “scientific” approach to historical analysis (190). Pinker believes the statistics don’t justify the feeling that we’re living in excessively violent times, although he recognizes the numbers will be hard to prove. The biggest obstacle is gathering accurate numbers for world population estimates and death tolls: “The truth is that we will never really know which was the worst century, because it’s hard enough to pin down death tolls in the twentieth century, let alone earlier ones” (193). Despite sketchy records, Pinker tries to rank large-scale human atrocities while adjusting for differences in population. (See the chart, here.) Still, Pinker draws on the best records he could find to trace the history of human violence from primitive times to the present.  He detects a change in the taken-for-granted presence of violence in medieval times (including ghastly descriptions of human torture) and more recent reticence to engage in hand-to-hand combat. If his stats can be trusted, rates of homicide, rape, human trafficking, war, genocide, and other forms of violence have declined significantly over the past few centuries. Rather than the world spinning out of control with greater and greater levels of violence, there appears to be a certain entropy of aggression which corresponds with what he sees as an increase in intellectual acumen. We get smarter, we fight less.
For a book that exalts empirical science, then, Pinker is actually making more of a philosophical claim. He combines the Humanities (history, philosophy) with Science (evolutionary theory, neurobiology). Rhetorically, he tends to exalt the latter, but his overall argument testifies to the necessary use of the former. In fact, he falls short in distinguishing between these various methods, to the detriment of his overall argument. That is, he often risks confusing method with ontology (see David Bentley Hart, “Lupinity, Felinity, and the Limits of Method,” First Things, Sept. 30, 2011).
In fact, the first half of the book best exemplifies Pinker’s shortcomings when combining stats and stories. Through seven chapters he traces human history from its primitive origins, through Greece, the Bible, early Christendom and Rome, the Medieval times, early modern Europe, the United States, and on through the twentieth century. He advances the now-familiar myth that religion is essentially responsible for most of the bad past while Enlightenment thinking rescued humanity for a brighter future without faith. Pinker styles himself an “Jewish atheist” (374), and he’s not nearly as acerbic or irrational as most of the so-called New Atheists in regards to religion. He’s more in line with A.C. Grayling’s approach. He clearly doesn’t have a grasp on the history of various religions, although he doesn’t simplistically equate them all as “poison” a laChristopher Hitchens (678). He quite rightfully points out instances of horrid religiously-fueled violence, but that is the only role he tends to see for various religious movements.
While Pinker doesn’t recognize his selective history problem, he is more aware of the classic chicken/egg problem. This is crucial to accounting for observations like: Married men tend to commit less violence. Does marriage decrease the likelihood that men will commit violent crimes, or are men who wouldn’t commit violent crimes more likely to seek marriage (106)? Can we link the obvious rise in the crime rate through the 1960s to the personal violence expressed in popular music by groups like the Rolling Stones (113)?  What do mortgage rates have to do with homicide (610)?What should we make of the tongue-n-cheek “Golden Arches theory” of war, whereby no two countries with a McDonald’s have gone to war (285)?
Despite his failures as a historian, Pinker’s overall statistics certainly deserve further examination and debate. He’s done a fine job of presenting them alongside his narrative using plenty of charts and graphs. Do these charts lead him to predict the contents of the as-yet-filled brackets? The two world wars are recent enough to make Pinker loath to predict the future, though he sees these two examples of violence as exceptions to his general picture of decreasing violence (look at the past fifty years, he says.) His book is not an attempt to disclaim the potential of violence in the future, he says, but to argue that “substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them. Declines in violence are caused by political, economic, and ideological conditions that take hold in particular cultures at particular times” (361). He does venture a few predictions regarding Islamic terrorism, nuclear weaponry, Iran, and climate change crises, though.
In the second half of the book Pinker shifts from integrating statistics with historical narratives to analyzing the “moral universe” using neurobiology, or brain science (481). Pinker seems to feel more naturally at home here. In his chapter on “Inner Demons,” Pinker presents a five-part taxonomy of violence: predatory, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. When Pinker refers to our inner demons, he’s referring largely to features in the evolved human brain, and environmental factors which interact with these features. He argues that the brain hasn’t undergone a simple trajectory from primitive evil to enlightened good, either.
In one fascinating section he outlines brain processes which occur when a person is deliberating over a particular moral dilemma. Imagine you are the member of a family hiding from Nazis in a cellar with a noisy baby. Should the baby be smothered in order to save everyone else? The brain’s amygdala and cerebral cortex—a more primitive section of the brain—triggers a visceral reaction, a horror at the thought of killing a baby. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which evolved later, begins the intellectual abstract calculations. One baby versus an entire group. A third part of the brain, the anterior cingulated cortex, deals with these conflicting impulses. Thus, the higher evolved parts of the brain are not inner demons or better angels, but are “cognitive tools that can both foster violence and inhibit it” (507-508). Readers will enjoy bits about rabid sports fans (522) and racist babies (523), and most interesting is Pinker’s discussion of the question: would the world be less violent if more women were in charge (526). He also insightfully draws on game theory on questions about tit-for-tat exchanges and cycles of violence.
Through all of this, and for the remainder of the volume, he somehow manages to avoid even raising the question of free will, which is a fundamental aspect of deliberations about fundamental questions from the praiseworthiness of good deeds, to practical questions about criminal justice (for a glimpse at similar questions, see Gary Gutting, “What Makes Free Will Free?”, New York Times, October 19, 2011).
After slogging through eight chapters on human depravity, with sometimes intensely graphic descriptions, Pinker finally turns to focus on our better angels for the concluding chapter. These angels are divided into four overall categories: empathy, self-control, morality, and reason. Here Pinker is not averse to presenting his own beatitude: “The moral rationale [of the New Testament] seems to be: Love your neighbors and enemies; that way you won’t kill them. But frankly, I don’t love my neighbors, to say nothing of my enemies. Better, then, is the following ideal: Don’t kill your neighbors or enemies, even if you don’t love them” (591). This shallow New Testament exegesis is exemplary of Pinker’s failure to seriously engage any theological reflection not expressed by various Enlightenment thinkers and progressives. He finds much to praise in Hobbes and Kant, little to cheer for in Jesus or Aquinas. His philosophical reasoning on rationality being the chief proponent of non-violence also leaves something to be desired (see Gary Gutting, “Pinker on Reason and Morality,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2011).
Significantly, Pinker is not arguing that the process of organic evolution can explain the recent decline in human violence. Human nature, which he defines as “the cognitive and emotional inventory of our species, has been constant over the ten-thousand year window in which declines of violence are visible, and that all differences in behavior among societies have strictly environmental causes” (612. Further details on his approach to human nature can be found in his previous book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature). I wonder how he would integrate studies which claim that London cab drivers appear to “grow” their brains in a certain way on the job. (See “Taxi drivers’ brains ‘grow’ on the job,” BBC News, 14 March 2000.) Eaither way, he sees external environmental causes as leading to our increased uses of pacifying brain bits. Such causes, for Pinker, include “the Leviathan,” when the state uses a monopoly on force to decrease overall violence, “Gentle Commerce,” whereby exchanging goods is cheaper than attacking neighbors, “Feminization,” deflating cultures of manly honor, “the Expanding Circle,” an increasingly cosmopolitan society spreading through literature, trade, and government, and “the Escalator of Reason,” whereby human abstract reasoning skills have seemed to increase over the past century according to the famous “Flynn effect” (690). Despite Pinker’s earlier condemnation of “ideology” in general, he presents his own humanist ideology as the path to less violence for the future.
Although Pinker certainly has nothing specifically good to say about religion, not least of all the LDS Church (which only serves as ‘exhibit A’ for the claim that religions are entirely historically contingent, and thus not divine, p. 678), he does advance several hypotheses which Mormons will find interesting. First, the idea that humans are neither inherently evil nor inherently good (482); Second, that debates over “nature versus nurture” present a false dichotomy, that humans are in some sense both actors and acted upon (483), and that morality itself is in a large sense “relational” (628).
In other words, Pinker’s book has a ton of food for thought. Although I have pretty significant objections to some of his claims and methodology, I still strongly recommend the book.  Better Angels is an odd, irreverent mixture of horror and tragedy, hope and progress. It is a good example of the fact that scientific studies may be brought to bear on moral questions while seeking further light and knowledge.

Review: Craig Harline, “Conversions: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America”

Title: Conversions: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America
Author: Craig Harline
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: History/Narrative
Year: 2011
Pages: xi, 320
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780300167016
Price: $27.50
“The human intellect demands accuracy
while the soul craves meaning.
History ministers to both with stories.”1
Conversions, a new book by Craig Harline, presents exactly what the subtitle suggests: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America. In one story, Jacob Rolandus cuts himself off from his Reformed family by converting to Catholicism in 1654. In the other, the pseudonymous Michael Sunbloom converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the late 1970s, devastating his Evangelical Christian parents.
By juxtaposing these two narratives, Harline foregrounds a perennial question about the importance of historical scholarship: “So what?” This is the “relevance” question. Congratulations, Mr. Harline; while you’ve been digging around in dusty old archives or kicking back in your ivory tower, we’ve been out here creating jobs and doing other Important Things.
This is an attitude many historians are familiar with, as Harline himself candidly acknowledges:
The problem is, it’s not always easy to see what some old story, especially a really old story, can possibly have to do with you, right now. If a story is about, say, your ancestor, your religion, or your country, then its relevance may seem obvious enough. But a story about an obscure Dutch family that lived 350 years ago and 3,500 miles away and isn’t related to you and doesn’t speak your language or share your religion can seem as foreign as the moon (19).
It isn’t unusual for a historian to make such remarks in general. But it is unusual for a historian like Harline to make such remarks in the fourth chapter of a history book, and to do it using contractions like “it’s” and “doesn’t.”2
The quote isn’t part of an introduction to a historical essay, or an aside in a academic conference paper, or part of a plea for more funding in a letter written to donors or departments. It’s part of chapter four in Conversions.
Harline doesn’t stop there, either—he’s not simply lamenting the problems of a generally disinterested or distracted public. He’s expressing some of his own very personal reluctances, making explicit a few of the nagging questions a scholar deals with privately, sharing his vulnerability too:
Even when you sense the immediate relevance of such remote stories, as historians often do, you might be reluctant to explore it, because the task of showing how the past connects to the present is just so difficult. The past is strange, and other, and foreign. Sometimes it’s even completely impenetrable, despite your best efforts to understand it. Other times you think you have it right, then it slips between your fingers and fools you…If you can’t ever be sure that you’re right about the shadowy past, then how can you ever hope to compare it to the flesh-and-blood present? It’s a lot safer, and simpler, to stick to the past alone, especially the small corner of the past you’ve chosen to study, rather than to discuss how that past might also be about you today (19).
While a few contemporary scholars still cling to an outmoded understanding of “objectivity,” most historians today bear the scars of postmodern critiques; scars which remind them they don’t sit atop Mount Olympus declaring the absolute way things were. They don’t simply dig up facts from the past and set them in a row on the table for all of us to see. Three respected historians explain it this way: “Lived experience alters the questions historians ask, foreclosing some research agendas while inspiring new ones.”3  Harline himself could have written their description: “all histories start with the curiosity of a particular individual and take shape under the guidance of her or his personal and cultural attributes.”4  But those historians make those declarations in a book about history. Harline makes his declarations—then enacts them—in the middle of a history book.
Of course, Harline’s move is unconventional. Conversions is part of Yale University Press’s series, “New Directions in Narrative History.” It is a daring move toward explicit relevance by presenting “creative nonfiction.” It offers “significant scholarly contributions while also embracing stylistic innovation [through the] classic techniques of storytelling” (ii).
Such storytelling techniques are used to draw the reader in, as well as to bridge the past and present by inverting the time gap. Jacob Rolandus’s daring night escape from home in 1654 is narrated in the present tense: “And now the field at last! But here more disappointment: the horse still hasn’t arrived, and the friend waiting with the bag says that he can’t make the journey either, because he has a bad foot” (5). In contrast, Michael Sunbloom’s family reacted to his conversion in the past tense: “When the cousin started asking about Mormonism, and what in the world had moved Michael to convert, Michael hesitated, stepped as far into the hallway as he could [to avoid letting his parents overhear], and took the risk of answering. Big mistake” (76-77). These two stories are told alternately, one chapter relating Jacob’s tale, the next, Michael’s. This back-and-forth, “too be continued” construction naturally pulls readers to the next episode.
The structure of the book also invites readers into the world of a practicing historian. Harline includes pictures of the Da Vinci-esque code he had to crack in order to interpret Jacob Rolandus’s secret journal, a journal he excitedly discovered bundled up in an old archive (9-12). Harline describes how he found the journal, then how the journal’s story began feeling importantly, but vaguely, relevant to him. The journal ended up being connected through lineage to Harline’s own grandparents, which added emotional connection, but he reports: “Something else, someone else, had been working away inside me first, and it didn’t take long to recognize that it was Michael Sunbloom” (44).
I was mistaken above when I described Harline’s book as tracing only two conversion stories. The third, less-explicitly identified conversion story in Harline’s book is his own. By alternately centering Jacob, Michael, and himself as the main protagonists, Harline’s book inhabits a borderland between academic excellence and dangerous self-disclosure/didacticism. The idea of “conversion” itself is the conceptual bridge between radically different times, circumstances, motivations, characters, and outcomes. The heartrending interpersonal conflicts involved in each story tie each narrative to the others, and—more importantly, Harline might hope—ties these narratives to the heart of the reader.
By comparing Michael Sunbloom’s turmoil to Jacob Rolandus’s, Harline is simply doing the sort of implicit work a lot of readers already do when they read history—not least of all Mormons, who often employ history for exemplary moral ends in talks and Sunday School lessons. This moral use of history is certain to make readers squirm, not least of all any historians who believe it only blurs the lines between history and propaganda. While Harline pays close attention to the historical circumstances which made Rolandus’s decision so heartbreaking, he pays no less attention to Sunbloom’s personal context, because he is a living part of it. In fact, it is this same element which will likely make some Mormons increasingly uncomfortable as Harline’s narrative follows up on Sunbloom’s conversion by relating the way Sunbloom eventually drifted from the Church due to his emerging homosexual identity. As a Mormon himself, Harline’s discomfort over Sunbloom’s conversion experiences made Rolandus’s old papers seem all the more relevant to him, despite their deep differences. So his book candidly explores the tragic circumstances bridging three different-but-the-same conversion pathways.
Certainly this is what Yale University Press’s “New Directions” series is aiming for by presenting books which are “intended for the broadest general readership,” which explains the lack of footnotes and index, although he snuck in a very detailed bibliographical essay at the end (273-298). In addition to popular accessibility, the series aims to “speak to deeply human concerns about the past, present, and future of our world and its people” (ii). It will be fascinating to see what sort of reactions his efforts elicit. It’s possible that he could be criticized from a variety of perspectives. In the postscript, Harline describes worrying about what his fellow historians might think of his so explicitly tying the past to the present, his decision to stress “the psychological sameness of the past rather than its otherness” (267). He worries that “fellow Mormons…might dislike my sympathetic treatment of homosexuality,” (after all, he’s a professor of history at Brigham Young University), “while critics of Mormonism might dislike my sympathetic treatment of Mormonism,” (after all, he’s a professor of history at Brigham Young University). Not to mention what his parents, friends, Protestants, Catholics, and others might think (268). Whatever the obstacles, he reports, “I wanted to try anyway” (272).
This is history-as-catharsis:
Suddenly the burden of dealing with contemporary crises was lessened by the awareness that whatever people might do, they are not the first, nor probably the last, who will be forced to wrestle with this human problem.5
This is history-as-covenant:
…as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…(Mosiah 18:8—9).
1. Joyce Appleby, Lynne Hunt, Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 262.
2. Richard L. Bushman is another model of such academic self-disclosure, though his confessions are found in books like Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) and On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), not in the middle of his magisterial Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005).
3. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 271.
4. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 254.
5. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 290.

October 16, 2011

Review: Howard C. Stutz, “Let the Earth Bring Forth: Evolution and Scripture”

Title: Let the Earth Bring Forth: Evolution and Scripture
Author: Howard C. Stutz
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Evolution/Religion
Year: 2011
Pages: xvi, 87
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-126-5
Price: $15.95 ($9.95, Kindle)
“One of the greatest tragedies in recent times has been the extensive promulgation of creeds that have created chasms between science and religion. At no time in the history of humankind has science provided a more comprehensible panorama of the universe in which we live. Nor has there ever been a time when God has more clearly revealed Himself and His purposes to His children. Why then should there be so much apparent conflict between science and religion?” (xix).
Let the Earth Bring Forth is the culminating testimony of a man who spent his life successfully exploring the realms of faith and science. In addition to earning a Ph.D in genetics at UC Berkeley and teaching at Brigham Young University, Howard C. Stutz (b. 1918) served in various church callings from bishop, to high councilor, to stake patriarch. In university and church settings he interacted with students who were unsure of how to make sense of evolution from a faithful perspective. Shortly before passing away in 2010, Stutz completed his manuscript to “point out the harmony which exists between the theory of speciation by organic evolution and revealed truths contained in hold scriptures” (xv).
Stutz repeatedly emphasizes a few guiding principles throughout the book:
1. Science and religion are not incompatible by nature. Instead, Stutz believes they share a “common quest for truth” and thus often “converge” (64). At times they differ in the types of questions they ask and the methods available to explore the questions, but “there can be no permanent impasse between human discoveries and those provided by the Lord through revelation; they are all His” (xix). Thus, all truth will eventually harmonize (65, 78).
2. As Francis Bacon explained, Stutz believes “the book of God’s word” and “the book of God’s works” must both be consulted in a search for truth (vii). The “book of God’s works” includes things like the fossil record, geographical and ecological distribution patterns of species, embryology, anatomical structure, biochemical patterns, and genetics. Each of these receive focus as Stutz attempts to explain complex scientific theories to a lay audience. While he makes use of scripture to demonstrate scientific principles, he asserts that the Bible is not a science text (67, 77).
3. Organic evolution occurs, and it is the means God prepared for the carrying out of his purposes. “God’s dictum, ‘Let the earth bring forth,’ [Genesis 1:11; Abraham 4:11] is a profound declaration about speciation by evolution,” Stutz writes. “The Earth has brought forth and is still bringing forth species after species after species. The concepts of organic evolution, as I understand them, appear to harmonize with the scriptures. Points of disharmony seem few, and these few disparities appear to be the result of either ignorance or misinterpretation. In either case, they will most likely be resolved as new light and knowledge become available” (65). Stutz is careful to distinguish his conclusions from that of many so-called “Young Earth Creationists” whose theories tend to lay further outside the bounds of mainstream scientific acceptability (xxi, 17, 23, 28, 36, 42, 49, 56, etc.).
Stutz rhetorically makes scientific principles more palatable by using correlative scriptural language. “Phenotypic plasticity” and “genetic flexibility” are described, then related to the LDS concept of “free agency” (7). Such biological processes interacting with different environments provide “beauty and variety to the face of the earth” (62). All of this is in harmony with “the great plan of God” (8, 58). Ultimately, “faith in the truthfulness of scientific discoveries…has come from extensive study, from the testimonies of others, and from personal experiences”on the part of scientists (64). Stutz is also careful to include evidence for organic evolution which residents of the Wasatch Front, presumably a large part of his target audience as well as the area in which most of his research was focused, can observe in person. Cultivated rye at a small BYU nursery, bitterbrush on Utah’s mountain slopes, Juab County saltbush, and dinosaur fossils in Vernal all receive attention as evidence for Stutz’s conclusions (10, 15, 21, 28).
Because Stutz argues that human bodies, like those of various plants and animals, emerged through biological processes over a long period of time, he needs to account for a literal Adam and Eve common to LDS belief. Although he isn’t quite specific on this point, he seems to posit a long evolutionary background preceding a time when God introduced human spirits into bodies which were at last prepared (73). He believes evidence is overwhelming that the creation of human bodies is “not unique”:
Our body is made of the same materials found in other living organisms; we use the same source of energy for growth and metabolism. Our genetic code consists of the same four nitrogenous bases that code the DNA of all living organisms. Biologically, our bodies are not unique (71).
He tackles other common LDS speculations on the origins of humans throughout the text, countering the idea that the earth was formed from multiple other earths, thus leaving a deceptive fossil record (x, 28, 79). He disagrees with the idea that the “days” in the creation accounts were periods of “one thousand years” because the text itself does not require such a reading and the evidence suggests much longer periods of time (65). He posits a general correlation between the scripture accounts and the findings of evolutionary theory: waters and dry land needed to be separated before humans would appear, seasons and atmosphere, plants and animals, creation from the “dust of the earth” all find expression in scientific discoveries (67).
Although the essay was written for a general audience, Stutz covers many complex scientific principles, a few of which left me scratching my head. He also avoids a few nagging questions I wish he would have tackled more directly. For example, he states that “Truths revealed to us through the prophets can in no wise be incompatible with truths revealed to us in our laboratories” (78). He doesn’t mention that some LDS leaders, including one who eventually became president of the LDS church, have condemned organic evolution as a false teaching, or even a “deadly heresy.” The book’s forward, written by BYU professor Duane E. Jeffery, acknowledges that, “Without question, Mormon writers have produced many anti-evolution, indeed anti-science, books” (xi). But he points to other LDS authors who have disagreed with those views. And Stutz, who “brought the first formal training in evolution to students at BYU” as written “the first book by an LDS evolutionary biologist in the strict sense of the term” (xi-xii). Stutz’s faithful fulfilling of various church callings and his multiple-decade professorship teaching such things at BYU witness that faithful members of the Church can find compatibility between the gospel and organic evolution.
Without question, Stutz’s approach leaves more questions to be asked, more puzzles to be solved. Without question, Stutz relates his perspective with wonder, humility, gratitude, and sophistication. Let the Earth Bring Forth is an excellent little introduction to questions about the compatibility of organic evolution with LDS scripture. It also includes a useful index of the scriptural citations Stutz employs. Please recommend it to all your friends who are among the 78% or so of Mormons who don’t accept evolution as “the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.”*
*I recognize the question from this 2008 Pew survey is somewhat loaded. Even Mormons who accept the theory of evolution may be uncomfortable not acknowledging God in the process, as the question’s phrasing seems to do. Another fascinating approach to the question of LDS teachings and organic evolution is BYU professor Steven Peck’s article, “Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, 43, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-36, .pdf available here. Also check out this guest column Peck wrote for the Flunking Sainthood blog. Also see the great (in content) and spacious (in length) discussions on evolution at the newcoolthang blog, before they got taken over by sports fanatics.