Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Review: Mormonism for Dummies

From: "Jeff Needle" <jeff.needle@general-net.com>=20
Subject: Reiss and Bigelow, Mormonism for Dummies=20


Title: Mormonism for Dummies=20
Author: Jana Reiss and Christopher Bigelow=20
Publisher: Wiley Publishing, Inc.=20
Genre: Non-fiction=20
Year Published: 2005=20
Number of Pages: 365=20
Binding: Paperback=20
ISBN: 0-7645-7195-8=20
Price: $21.99=20

Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle=20

I had grand plans for this review. They were, alas, dashed, as a
friend pointed me to a review published in the Deseret News, wherein
the writer covered pretty much everything I wanted to say. Sigh. He
who hesitates...

If you are familiar with the "Dummies" series published by Wiley,
you'll know that there are a wide variety of topics covered, from
science to math to home improvement to just about anything you can
think of. My own previous experience with a Dummies book was with my
purchase of "Calculus for Dummies." It turned out to be exactly that
-- calculus for those who don't mind the frequent, and annoying, side
trips of a writer who lacks imagination and feels that cute (yuck)
little jokes are absolutely necessary in order for a person to learn

I had higher hopes for the current volume. I know both authors from
their contributions on the Association for Mormon Letters discussion
list. I was not disappointed. "Mormonism for Dummies" was one of the
best reads I've had in a long time.

Part I is titled "What the Mormon Faith is All About." It includes an
easily grasped overview of Mormonism's worldview, with an explanation
of the "plan of salvation" from the LDS point of view. Here the
reader learns of the pre-existence, the war in heaven, Heavenly Father
and Heavenly Mother, etc. Quite a bit to chomp on if you're new to
these concepts! Ideas like eternal marriage and the restoration of
the priesthood are also covered.

Part II, "Eternal Rituals and Endless Meetings," covers some of the
details of the weekly meeting block, a bit about the Temple and the
rituals performed therein, and a glimpse at Church headquarters in
Salt Lake City.

Part III, "Holy Books and Sacred History," explains the nature of
continuing revelation, the various books of scripture in the LDS
Church, and a brief overview of Church history.

Part IV, "Mormonism Today," talks about what it means to be a Mormon
in today's world. It includes discussions about stewardship,
missionary work, and other aspects of Mormon life.

Part V, "The Part of Tens," is a regular part of each "Dummies" book,
offering ten highlights in different areas -- for example, ten Mormon
historic places to visit, etc.

Now, there are at least two ways to make such a book readable and
lively. One way is to plug it with senseless, and often unfunny,
comments designed to talk down to the reader. Or, you can approach
all this with a sense of balance and a desire to truly educate, using
humor and class to enhance the reading experience. Happily, the
authors chose the latter.

In fact, a few days before writing this review, I had some visitors in
my home. They're here from time to time, always interested in going
through my books. The spotted "Mormonism for Dummies" -- frankly, I'd
spoken about the book over dinner -- and were skeptical. When one of
them picked up the book and started reading, she just couldn't put it

What keeps you turning the pages is the amazing honesty and
fair-mindedness of the book. And all this speaks to how Mormon
history and life are depicted in books intended for a general
audience. Those looking for the consistently positive will have no
problem finding books and pamphlets to meet their needs. Similarly,
anyone wanting the bad can find enough at the local Christian
bookstore, or on the Internet, to satisfy interest. "Mormonism for
Dummies" tells the story from the perspective of faithful members of
the Church who believe that Mormonism is far more nuanced, more
layered, than either extreme will have you believe.

Let's sample a few of the discussions:=20

Was Jesus Married?=20

Mormons view marriage as an eternal covenant that all men and women=20
must make in order to be *exalted*, or become like God...In addition,=
Mormons believe that Jesus Christ set a perfect example in all things.=
According to this logic, the Savior must've gotten married at some=20

Some early Mormon leaders speculated that the marriage at Cana, where=
Jesus turned water into wine, was actually his own wedding, which would=
explain why he was trying to be a good host. Additionally, some=20
Mormons believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and had children,=20
and they reject the notion that Magdalene was a reformed whore.=20
However, modern Church leaders pretty much avoid this subject=20
altogether. (p. 47)=20

Does this accurately reflect Mormon views throughout the years? I
think it does.

And this discussion on BYU was amazingly frank:=20

BYU's mission is to combine the highest-quality secular teaching with=
religious education to produce eternally well-rounded graduates.=20
Although most of the secular classes are like those at any other=20
university, occasionally professors bring prayer or spiritual=20
perspective into the classroom...=20

To maintain control over the university, in recent years the Church has=
increased its oversight of BYU and clamped down on perceived=20
troublemakers. The Church now appoints the university president from=
among its own General Authorities. LDS professors must hold a current=
*temple recommend*... and the handful of non-Mormon faculty must abide=
by similarly high moral standards. From time to time, BYU denies=20
tenure to faculty members not because of inadequate scholarship but=20
because their expressions aren't in harmony with official Church=20
teachings or standards, particularly in the areas of history,=20
anthropology, and literature. As a result, professional agencies have=
criticized BYU for its lack of academic freedom. (p. 147-8)=20

Once again, a very fair appraisal of the situation at BYU, in my
opinion. And, I think, an excellent example of writing in such a way
that each reader may read the text through his or her own lens of
experience. The previous paragraph will certainly be read differently
by faithful members and by critics.

As I thought through what I would write here, I had a radical idea --
every prospective missionary ought to read this book before going on
his or her mission. It covers just about everything they may
encounter while on their missions -- the Mountain Meadows Massacre,
polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc. And it gives a fair view of
these issues, leaving nothing to surprise them.

I was a bit dismayed when the reviewer in the Deseret News suggested
the same thing -- missionaries ought to read this. And I thought it
was my idea!! I'll somehow recover from the blow.

Although seasoned Mormon historians and theologians are not likely to
learn much from "Mormonism for Dummies," it nonetheless offers easy to
understand, thoroughly balanced, and often amusing explanations for
some of the more arcane corners of the religion. Consider the
following in the discussion on polygamy, trying to dismiss false
notions about the practice:

"Polygamy was all about sex." Not really. In fact, some of the plural=
marriages contracted in Utah were for *eternity only*, meaning that the=
wife would be on the man's rolls in heaven, but they would have no=20
earthly rolls in the hay. (p. 224)=20

I dare you to read that and not smile.=20

Here's the bottom line, in my opinion: there may have been a time when
the general public were not aware of some of Mormonism's beliefs and
challenges. For many, all they knew were the Tabernacle Choir and the
nicely-dressed missionaries. Today, with the Internet and other
media, enemies of the Church have found it easier to attack the Church
on many fronts. Missionaries going door to door need to be better
prepared to answer the inevitable questions.

I've been entertaining missionaries in my home for years. From time
to time they ask questions that are, to be honest, quite startling.=20
They've been told things by some of their contacts, and they are
things they've never heard before. I believe it's time to better arm
the young men and women who go out and introduce the Church to the
world. "Mormonism for Dummies" would be a great beginning.

I loved this book, and highly recommend it.=20

Jeff Needle=20

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