The Dumbing Down of Mormon Books, Made Easy!

The Dumbing Down of Mormon Books, Made Easy! January 5, 2011

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!

Rather than writing with “shallow brevity,” the authors exhibited “self-discipline” by not trying to “impress scholarly circles” with “deeper-than-necessary theological minutiae.” Surely, such “minutiae” would only be included for that reason rather than exemplifying a rigorous attempt to understand a difficult or contested reading. Indeed, common sense tells us that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; truth, like an arrow, slices to the center of the target. Certainty is the goal, we can recognize the truth by the bold period instead of a question mark at the end. (Arrows don’t fly in squiggly lines anyway.) Things are simpler when you just say what is so.1

This approach, characterized by its foregone certainty masked as simplicity, appears to characterize a whole series of books which have been heavily promoted by Deseret Book. David J. Ridges promises to make everything “Easier” in the Old and New Testaments, Isaiah, Jeremiah, The Book of Revelation, The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and even Mormon Beliefs and Doctrines.2

Ridges’s books have evidently sold well. His BYU Education Week classes are well attended according to his wife, who offers this explanation: “he is prepared to give them doctrine, not just opinion, which is what they are there for.”3

This approach doesn’t seem to be new. You can probably point me to other blog discussions on the same topic.4 It has been over twenty years since Louis Midgley’s classic, scathing review of a Book of Mormon commentary:
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
What’s the problem with such-and-such “made easier”? Midgley puts it succinctly: “Such efforts…tend to close the door on the untapped possibilities within the scriptures.”6 Such books may seem very familiar, lack imposing footnotes, and assume an audience with a low reading level. Such books more often seem to offer answers to their own questions without demonstrating how the answers were arrived at, without giving the readers ideas about how to ask their own questions.

To the extent that such books encourage us to “read scripture as if it were naive philosophy” they may exemplify what LDS philosopher James Faulconer stunningly compares to “idolatry”:
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

Faulconer favors a “disruptive reading,” one in which we try to find questions in scripture, questions which call us to repentance and to new perspectives.8 But I don’t see many books which seek, in that way, to make things “harder,” we see seven steps to better such-and-such, and things “made easier.”

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?


1.  All quotes from Jacob Hancock, “Book review: ‘The Biblical Roots of Mormonism’,”, 28 December 2010. Of course, the promise of making things easy is not unique to Mormonism.

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,”, 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.

6.  Ibid.

7.  James L. Faulconer, “On Scripture,” in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010), 211. A review is forthcoming on this new Faulconer volume.

8.  Ibid., 215.

9.  C. Wilfred Griggs, “Hugh Nibley, Mentor to the Saints,”

10. See here, here, and here for examples. I acknowledge that the inclusion of these footnotes might be considered inappropriate given my promise that this post would be “Made Easy.”

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