A recent book review of Eric Shuster and Charles Sale’s The Biblical Roots of Mormonism describes the book as “a 258-page overview of about 350 Latter-day Saint beliefs referenced in the Old and New Testament.” On the face of it, the book sounds like an extended exercise in proof-texting. I’ve talked about a few potential problems with such easy “likening” elsewhere but I haven’t read this particular book myself, so I can’t comment on its quality. Instead, I want to focus on the rhetorical approach of the book as described in the review. The book is an example of a larger trend in the marketing of recent LDS books generally: the marketing of stuff “made easier.”
According to the reviewer, the authors of The Biblical Roots of Mormonism “forewent a prolific tone in their writing and settled appropriately for a more matter-of-fact, practical approach to their descriptions of LDS beliefs.” The book’s “organization and simplicity that make it worth owning,” and the “fast-paced” chapters are “easy to scan through in a hurry.”
The reviewer underscores the virtues of simplicity, practicality, and speed. Anticipating a critical response to their approach, the reviewer adds:
With each topic averaging less than a single page of commentary, the book is no in-depth analysis of any one of its many subjects. But where critics might accuse it of being shallow in its brevity of doctrinal descriptions, others will surely hail the authors’ self-discipline for not cramming in deeper-than-necessary theological minutiae to impress scholarly circles. Their aim, to show Mormon biblical roots, hits the bull’s-eye.
This quote doesn’t really need breaking down, but as promised, I’m making this easier by doing so!
The flaws in Doctrinal Commentary are ones common to much of Mormon scholarship. The tendency is to divert attention away from the message and meaning in the text under consideration, and back towards what we already know.”5
Those who read the scriptures in this way take the gospel to be a set of doctrinal propositions that one is to learn, and they take the scriptures to be a record of those principles and propositions behind which the ‘theological’ gospel hides. When we read scripture this way, it is as if we assume that God is simply a poor writer–or that he chooses poor mouthpieces–and finds himself unable to lay out clearly and distinctly, in an ordered fashion, the principles he wants to teach us. With amazing hubris, we assume it is our job to do the work he was unable to do, the work of making everything clear, distinct, and orderly.7
Sales alone can’t explain this situation. The recent Massacre at Mountain Meadows book sold quite well, for example, and it isn’t the lightest reading I’ve encountered. I can’t merely sigh and say “it’s always been like this,” either. When Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon was selected as the 1957 priesthood manual the correlation committee “turned down every chapter,” Nibley explained. “But President McKay overruled the committee on every chapter. He said that if it’s over the brethren’s heads, let them reach for it.”9 Deseret Book has recently put out a few books which seem to elevate things to an exciting new level,10 but for the most part still seems to favor the pop-spirituality or doctrinaire commentary (and cute wall hangings!).
What prevents more books like the ones in footnote #10 from being written and published? I concede that I see a legitimate place for more devotional, homiletic, or traditional LDS style commentary. My instinct tells me there are many factors contributing to this genre and to the lack of other types of approaches from mainstream LDS publishers.
But I still have to ask: why do we so often have to make things easier?
2. I want to strongly emphasize that I believe Ridges seems like a good and well-meaning man, but that is all I will say about his character in this post. My criticism is leveled at the authored, not the author. A list of his books, including the “Made Easier” series, is available here.
3. Whitney Butters, “BYU Education Week’s David Ridges keeps attracting ‘Isaiah Trekkies’,” 11 August 2010.
4. For one such example, see Ben’s “A Pillar of Light, The First Vision, and History for the Masses,” juvenileinstructor.org, 29 May 2009. Ben notes that “academically trained historians, especially within the Mormon tradition, wish that the faithful masses had a better understanding of the history of the Church,” and wonders about factors which inhibit what he sees as a better understanding.
5. Louis Midgley, “Prophetic Messages or Dogmatic Theology? Commenting on the Book of Mormon: A Review Essay,” FARMS Review 1:1, 92-113, see here.
9. C. Wilfred Griggs, “Hugh Nibley, Mentor to the Saints,” http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=167.