A Conversation About Letters to a Young Mormon

This is a discussion T&S permabloggers Julie and Dave had last week about the new book Letters to a Young Mormon (Maxwell Institute, 2014) by Adam Miller (also a T&S permablogger).

lettersDave: Three things a reader should know about Letters to a Young Mormon: It is short, 78 pages if you count the title page. It is published by the Maxwell Institute, part of their Living Faith series (each volume in the series is an “example of faith in search of understanding” by “a scholar who has cultivated a believing heart …”). And it is written by a philosopher, which is always a plus. But I wonder how young a Mormon needs to be to be part of the intended audience. My sense is that anyone from twelve to a hundred would enjoy the book and profit from reading it.

Julie: Good question. An interesting bit of reception history here: I’ve seen reviewers mocked for assuming that the book was actually addressed to young Mormons and not recognizing the conceit of the genre. On the other hand, Adam does say in the intro that he “imagined [himself] writing these letters to [his] own children.” I’d guess that the letters are designed for what our evangelical friends call “worldview formation,” which is best done with teens who are still in the process of forming said worldview. But there is a lot of work to be done in re-shaping the worldview of adults who have been poorly taught. And while my 12-year-old would get something out of this book, and my 16-year-old would get more out of this book, I got an awful lot out of it.

Dave: The book is composed of twelve short chapters. The first three cover agency, work, and sin. Here is how Adam starts the chapter on sin, a topic young Mormons hear a lot about but probably don’t ponder in much detail:

Being a good person doesn’t mean you’re not a sinner. Sin goes deeper. Being good will save you a lot of trouble, but it won’t solve the problem of sin. Only God can do this. Fill your basket with good apples rather than bad ones, but, in the end, sin has as much to do with the basket as with the apples. Sin depends not just on your actions but on the story you use those actions to tell.

He dwells on the idea of your life as a story, one you are building by living it, and building that story “on the fly, out of whatever borrowed scraps are at hand.” But it is not God’s purpose that we have a never-ending chain of successes in our life story: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39 NRSV).

Julie: Your excerpt here shows one of Adam’s great skills: he is the Analogy King … which is maybe a little ironic in a book based on the idea that the stories we tell fail us. As a big fan of narrative (and its theological implications), I have to admit to being a little conflicted about his demand that we give up the stories we tell. I know that there is a distinction between the stories that we want to be true about our personal lives and the stories that, for example, the Gospels tell about Jesus, but still, I’m a little touchy on this point.

Dave: Not just clever analogies — Adam sometimes uses jarring analogies and harsh metaphors, aggressive terms to shake up complacent Mormon readers and get our attention. I liked the chapter on history, not an easy topic for young Mormons these days. Adam notes that God does his work using “weak, partial, and limited mortals like us”:

To demand that church leaders, past and present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel’s most basic claim: that God’s grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.

He advises tolerance not only for our imperfections, but also for the imperfect stories we tell ourselves about our collective past. At some point the faith-promoting versions of LDS history we get in bits and pieces at church will need to give way to “the messy, vibrant, and inconvenient truths that characterize God’s real work with real people.” I am reminded of that quotation from Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Adam seems to be saying yes, our timber is crooked, but God can make something of us nonetheless.

Julie:  I’ve been thinking recently about the distinction between what I would call “responsive apologetics” and “deep apologetics.” The former is when we are challenged on some particular topic and generate a response to it. This is a good and necessary kind of apologetics, but defense doesn’t win games. We also need the latter kind — the kind which creates a narrative that makes it less likely that people will agonize over the messiness to which they are exposed, instead of expecting a mess. The Givens’ book was an important part of this work. Craig Harline’s essay is (at least as I read it) an important part. Adam’s book is, similarly, important.

Dave: One thing I like about the book is that Adam covers science and history and sex as well as scripture, faith, and prayer. I think Correlation has narrowed the range of LDS discourse in manuals and magazines. We need to teach our youth that Mormonism is big and wide enough to deal with life, all of it. In the book’s opening paragraph, Adam references “tough questions that lack easy answers.” Too often we paint the gospel as a set of easy answers, a plan of guaranteed happiness. In fact, life can be very tough. “I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins” (Enos 1:2). This book prepares young Mormons to do that wrestling.

Julie: Yes. His treatment of faith didn’t work for me nearly as well as that in The God Who Weeps (Adam has already interacted with that treatment in this post), but the very fact that we have faithful LDS thinkers presenting more than one conceptualization of faith is, for my money, a much better state of affairs than if we only had one of them presenting the one true version. This is one of those books that everyone should read.

15 comments for “A Conversation About Letters to a Young Mormon

  1. Love Adam’s stuff (though I admit most of it requires careful reading since it can be very difficult for simpletons like me to grasp).

    Letter’s was particularly good. I really enjoyed it.

    Note to MI: the binding is terrible (the multiple copies I have were cut at a bad angle so when bound the sentences are angled rather than symmetrically centered. :)

  2. “But there is a lot of work to be done in re-shaping the worldview of adults who have been poorly taught.”
    Amen to that! Currently going through some world-view related revisions on a paper in which I feel like I’m really soft-pedaling, and the reviewer feels I’m going at it with a sledgehammer!

    Everything I hear about this sounds great, hope to get to it soon.

  3. ” Too often we paint the gospel as a set of easy answers, a plan of guaranteed happiness.”

    By “we” do you mean, “the top church leaders?” Ultimately it is they who have the biggest influence and responsibility to “paint the gospel.”

  4. Wondering, “we Mormons” is what I intended. However, the change in terminology from “plan of salvation” to “plan of happiness” and now often “great plan of happiness” came from above, so senior LDS leaders have moved in the same direction.

  5. Julie, I’m a little conflicted about the “give up your stories” bit also. I agree that God himself may overturn my stories, my conceptions about him. Ultimately we have a foundation in a being–in God–not in a story or theology about him. I believe that. We must believe him more than our theology about him, though believing him would generally mean believing stories and theology he’s given us or that seem to follow from his existence.

    Similarly my stories that arise out of resentment, pride, laziness, fear, etc. These self-deceiving, untruthful stories I must also give up.

    On the other hand, I take some of the stories I have not simply to be stories or narrative I’ve established, but that handed on to me by others. They’re not simply _my_ stories. And in some instances I take these stories to have been given me by God. (Granted that he’s a living story teller and can add to the stories given. He is the Law, Truth, Light, Logos–the Story, if you will.) Because he’s had a hand in giving me a particular story, I take my fidelity to him to also include fidelity to that story. “I came into the world to do the will of the Father, because my Father sent me. And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross.” That’s a good story–good news, even. It’s a story given to me–His story given to me–and in that sense my story, a story I try to take up. In this sense I think to give up this story would be to give up God–not simply the God of metaphysics, the God of the philosophers and theologians–but the true and living, personal, embodied in flesh and bones God that tradition, the scriptures, the prophets, the world of nature, the everyday believer, all tell a story about and witness of. Perhaps the point is to let Him write the story in our hearts and lives–our story being enveloped by his. That’s a story I’m not willing to give up.

  6. Julie,

    My jaw absolutely hit the floor when I read that the Givens’ account of faith resonated more with you than Adam’s. I had exactly the opposite reaction, and I would love to hear why you found “Weeps” more compelling.

  7. Thanks, Julie and Dave. I appreciate the review and I really like the dialogue format.

    Regarding Julie’s point (a point amplified by Keith) that:

    “I have to admit to being a little conflicted about his demand that we give up the stories we tell. I know that there is a distinction between the stories that we want to be true about our personal lives and the stories that, for example, the Gospels tell about Jesus, but still, I’m a little touchy on this point.”

    I agree that the stories we tell are an important part of life but I think we often let that tail wag the dog. That is, we act as if our lives are for the sake of our stories rather than these stories being for the sake of our lives. I think something similar often happens (in sin) with “the law” where we treat laws and ideals as being the point of a life rather than an abundance of life being the end of the law.

    If we let our stories go and embrace life we won’t be bereft of stories because life inevitably produces stories as a by-product. But if we cling to our stories at the cost of embracing the lives God is trying to give us, then we may well end up spiritually dead. Stories are part of our lives, but our lives are much, much bigger than those stories.

    Another way to think about this is by way of an analogy with happiness.

    If we take happiness to be the point of our own lives, then we’ll never be happy. You can’t pursue happiness directly. It can only come as a by-product of a certain kind of life that takes service and charity as the point. If charity is the point of my life, then happiness will get generated as a by-product. But the moment I think life is about my happiness, then I’ve lost it again.

    Similarly, I don’t think that we can take the meaning supplied by our stories as the point of our lives. If we think the story (with its meaning, ideals, etc.) is the thing that life should conform to, then we’ll fail to connect with what’s genuinely meaningful. We’ll have a simulacrum of meaning at best (you know that kind of brittle testimony that’s based on stories rather than life and, as a result, can break at any moment when the stories get run over by life). Rather, meaning gets generated as a by-product of our attempt to connect with the fullness of life in the same way that happiness gets generated as a by-product of our attempts to love and serve.

    Happiness and meaning are important but (ironically) the more important we make them, the less we’re likely to have them.

    We have to lose our stories in order to save them.

  8. Kim, my thinking was personal, not theoretical. At the time I was reading it, the Givens’ conception of faith as a choice (maybe that isn’t a fair summation, but that’s how it struck me at the time) just made sense to me.

  9. Very nice review of a very nice book, and thanks for the interesting clarification about giving up stories, Adam, which do indeed seem to take on a life of their own, and to be valued more than experience itself. They’re certainly neater and tidier than experience, as is often pointed out and as any writer knows, which no doubt has a lot to do with making them so attractive.

  10. Nice exchange. I also loved the book. While written to youth, it can easily help the average LDS adult to increase his level of commitment and faithfulness to the gospel. I agree with Adam that we have to let God write our stories. We end up putting tons of suppositions, politics, self-justification and/or self-flagellation into our own stories.
    I also like how Adam states we need to vomit faith, and not just have it act as an stomach ache reliever.
    C.S. Lewis noted that God is an architect that takes the little cottage of our lives, and transforms it into a mansion/castle. It hurts and is tough going through the renovation, but the Lord doesn’t just want to sooth us, but totally change us. Adam’s letters challenge us to accept that level of transformation.

  11. Dave:

    “Great plan of happiness” is scriptural (Alma 42:8). It is funny when we criticize leaders for using scriptural phrases to illustrate our doctrines!

  12. Old Man, noting that LDS leaders now often use the term “plan of happiness” where before they generally used the term “plan of salvation” hardly constitutes criticism. You’ve got kind of a hair trigger yourself when it comes to lobbing criticism.

  13. Riley (comment #1): “Note to MI: the binding is terrible (the multiple copies I have were cut at a bad angle so when bound the sentences are angled rather than symmetrically centered. :)

    I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve thumbed through a few dozen copies and haven’t noticed that problem. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we printed, though. I hope it was a limited phenomenon. Haven’t heard anyone else bring it up.

    Great exchange on the “stories” aspect, too. I think I’ll grab it up and turn it into a post in case people skip these comments.

  14. I enjoyed this dialogue–very cool exchange between very smart people. And thanks, Adam, for the expounding upon what your mean about the importance of stories and not letting the tail wag the dog, so to speak.

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