Idiosyncratic ranking of the “Let’s Talk About” series from Deseret Book

This is, I think, the best thing to come out of Deseret Book in a long while. I somewhat wish these books had existed when I was much, much younger, but the expertise (and, frankly, spiritual maturity of many members) likely didn’t really exist in the right forms until recently.

What follows is my totally idiosyncratic, personal ranking of the series. Every book is excellent (how often can you say that about a book series like this?), so this is not “best to worst” but more “what Ivan enjoyed or found most useful”  This may or may not help you.

Also, some volumes have either not been released or I haven’t read them, so they are absent from the list:

1. Polygamy: Very well presented.  Strongest point is the liberal quotation and use of diaries, letters, journals, and first person accounts from those actually involved in polygamy,

2. Race and Priesthood: Does an admirable job of just presenting the history while threading the needle between respect for prophetic authority and acknowledgement of human fallibility. Likely the most uncomfortable to read of the series, but all the more important because of it.

3. The Law of Consecration: Maybe the second most uncomfortable to read in this series, but a good wake-up call.  Exposes faulty reasoning (such as “tithing replaced consecration” – no, it didn’t, and it really didn’t if you’ve been endowed).  At times might come across as rhetorically hostile, but overall even-tempered.

4. The Book of Abraham:  I would have organized the book differently, but I’m also not the expert here.  Does an excellent job explaining all sides; the author clearly does not accept the “Catalyst” theory for the papyri, but explains that theory better than many of its proponents, which is a hallmark of a good writer and serious thinker.

5. The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Seer stones and all that.  Doesn’t cover some issues (like, say, View of the Hebrews) as much as I would like, but gives a nice detailed timeline with lots of documentation.

6. Faith and Intellect: Might rank higher if I hadn’t already read pretty much everything Terryl L. Givens has written so far. Thus, this came across as “Terryl L. Givens for Dummies” to me, but it might be a good starting point for those unfamiliar with his work.

7. Religion and Mental Health:  Very good coverage of dealing with mental health in a Gospel context. I wished he had been harsher on one husband that left his depressed wife, but he comes across as a very charitable, caring practitioner. Definitely recommended for those struggling with mental health issues or who minister to those who do, or are just interested in preparing themselves for doing so in the future (which is quite likely).

8. Temples and Ritual: Having taken many classes on, read lots of books about, and had direct experience with lots of different religions and their rituals, this might have been higher, but it felt a little like a review of things I already knew.  However, it does a great job of presenting our rituals within a larger religious context without losing the forest or the trees.

However, just go read them all.  They aren’t perfect, but they’re better than anything I could write on the subjects, and better than most other things written on these topics (on a general, popular level; there are academic works that are more detailed or nuanced or whatever, but they have a somewhat limited audience).

16 comments for “Idiosyncratic ranking of the “Let’s Talk About” series from Deseret Book

  1. Thanks, Ivan; you’ve read two (Abraham, and Mental Health) that I haven’t, and your remarks on those are especially helpful.

    And I agree with you that Race and Priesthood is uncomfortable, at least for me as a white woman. On the other hand, it was really the first time I’ve read a sustained essay on the issues from the perspective of the black members who lived through it, rather than from the perspective of white leaders who imposed it. (See the introductory chapter, if readers don’t yet have time to go through the entire book.) As painful as it was to read, it was worth it to see how it affected these specific individuals, and how they clung to the truth despite human failing. I also appreciated the mini-chapters where the author took each of the common member beliefs that attempt to justify (and still try to justify!) the restrictions, and calmly and faithfully point out the flaws in each rationalization.

  2. JG – The upcoming “Religion and Science” volume actually worries me a bit, since it looks like it’s just a “grab bag” of various scientific issues like evolution, rather than (what we really need and which people like Ben Spackman are working on) is a serious reconsideration of our assumptions, cultural conditioning, and first principles when it comes to what science really is and does and how the scriptures relate to it (Terryl and Nathaniel Givens do a decent job with that in their recent “Into the Headwinds” book, but since that was published with Eerdmans rather than an LDS publisher, I’m not sure how many LDS outside of hardcore Givens fans will read it).

    But I might be surprised.

  3. Ardis –

    Exactly. Very uncomfortable, but very necessary. And it takes apart the rationalizations without being mean or rhetorically divisive. I can’t say I agree with every rhetorical choice he makes, but he threads the needle way better than I could.

  4. I’m going to do a review on the “Religion and Science” one fairly soon. Given my background in science, I share some of your same concerns, Ivan. But we’ll see how it goes.

  5. The volume on the translation of the Book of Mormon is very weak, as it simply reflects the authors’ previous very biased books uncritically advocating the seer stone translation narrative based on problematic sources like David Whitmer while downplaying Joseph and Oliver’s many statements that the translation came from the plates using the Jaredite/Nephite interpreters provided by God for the purpose of translating the book (JS-H 1:35). See the new book on this subject, By Means of the Urim & Thummim: Restoring Translation to the Restoration.

  6. Since the book actually deals with those concerns and ably documents its conclusions, the only weak thing I see is rather selective, biased, and blind Heartlander boilerplate.

  7. Interesting. What’s at stake in the translation method in the Heartlander vs. Central American debate? I’m geography-agnostic, but haven’t been persuaded by the Heartlander stuff I’ve seen. Is the translation debate intrinsically connected to the geography debate, or is it just accidental?

  8. Jonathan: I think JWL wrote a book on the translation process, arguing that the Urim and Thummim explanation was best. While technically unrelated, the co-author of his book is also a serious proponent of the Heartlander model. In the very limited Mormon apologetic world where this matters, I believe the co-author is seen as something of an overly enthusiastic agitator for the Heartlander cause.

  9. Jonathan,

    Just to add to jimbob’s comment: it seems to me that for some Heartlanders there is an intrinsic connection–in the sense that they tend to elevate the words of Oliver Cowdrey to a very high status in order to make their case. If they take what he says about the Hill Cumorah to be inspired–which is a very important geographic marker for the Heartland theory–then certainly what he says about the translation process must be inspire too.

    Perhaps a bit simplistic–but that’s the gist of it, IMO.

  10. “overly enthusiastic agitator” is – way more charitable than I would be. This blog ably documents that the co-author is basically off his rocker:

    As for the connection between a Heartlander model and the translation, I think the connection is a reactionary tendency. They tend to be stuck in a mid-20th century mindset where the BoM took place in North America and seerstones were an anti-Mormon smear. Every finding or discovery since then is not just wrong, but apostate and probably satanic.

    There is nothing intrinsic in accepting a heartland model for the BoM that requires the bizarreness of the current movement, but “Heartlanders” are people who insist not only did the Book of Mormon totally take place in the “Heartland” of the USA (in North America) but that it’s really, really important to believe this and if you don’t, you are apostate and out of harmony with the gospel (which includes the faculty at BYU, the General Authorities, and even President Nelson). One of the primary beliefs is a conspiracy (“Cartel” is the preferred term) to hide the truth of the Heartland model in the upper echelons of the Church.

    And a lot of the unstated motivations behind it all are a kind of racist American exceptionalism Christian Nationalism type thing. It’s not healthy. It’s a prime example of a certain strain of conservatism within the Church being just as spiritually unhealthy as some strains of progressivism.

  11. That ^^^ is one of the most succinct and even-handed summaries of this [um, I don’t have an even-handed word to represent it] that I’ve ever seen, Ivan. Thank you.

  12. I have toyed with creating a post that showcases just how racist the Heartlander movement is (and this is coming from a somewhat conservative guy who finds many accusations of racism little more than rhetorical ploys – but this movement really is more than just structurally racist or racist by implication or systemically racist or other types of racism that aren’t “on the surface” so to speak; I don’t think it’s a coincidence I was unceremoniously kicked off my old blog haunt the same time it started dabbling in Heartlander stuff along with “the Mark of Cain as the reason for the Priesthood restriction is totally true doctrine” along with “Russia had totally understandable reasons for invading Ukraine” and some other things like that – they’re all connected in bizarre ways that indicate a serious spiritual sickness) –

    but I want to avoid the Streisand Effect. Sometimes ignoring a movement like that is the best move.

  13. Just returning to this post after being pre-occupied with putting out a second edition of By Means of the Urim & Thummim: Restoring Translation to the Restoration. Please note the following:

    1) The book is completely unrelated to the issue of where geographically the Book of Mormon took place. Indeed, many supporters of a Mesoamerican geography who are familiar with our arguments on the translation have found them to be convincing. If any of the commentators above bother to read our book, it will be completely clear that our arguments on translation are completely unrelated to arguments about Book of Mormon geography.

    2) Further to this last point, I am very disappointed in the foregoing comments, as they come from people who clearly have not read our book, and who are clearly completely unacquainted with our arguments.

    3) As a relative newcomer to these issues, I am struck by the irony of the the foregoing comments so full of vitriol and prejudice then in the same comment throwing unsupported charge of racism against fellow Saints who are sympathetic to theories positing North American geographies for the Book of Mormon. Having recently become personally acquainted with many of these sisters and brothers (many of who are not from the US and could care less about stupid American political arguments), let’s just say that I find the foregoing characterizations to be not only completely inaccurate, but deeply uncharitable as well.

    4) I acknowledge that I posted a comment which was dismissive of the book by Dirkmaat and Mackay. However, I have read all of their work (articles as well as books) and have deeply researched the subject. This is the basis of the short conclusion in my comment. I would have hoped that the writers on this blog did not need explanations as to how proper scholarly debate is conducted. One reads the other persons’ work before weighing in with one’s disagreements.

    5) As to my co-author’s “crackpot” views, may I suggest that you all check the index in Richard Bushman’s most recent book to see how our most senior (and respected) living scholar treats Jonathan Neville’s work.

    I have not been a recent participant on this blog, but was more active in the beginning, and personally know some of its founders. I must say that I was deeply disappointed by the comments above (and do I need to refer you children to a very recent conference talk by President Nelson?)

    I would look forward to any hearing any contrary views you may have after reading our book.

    With sincere regards,

    James W. Lucas

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