Book Review: A Book of Mormons
A Book of Mormons is a part of the I Speak For Myself Series, and edited by Emily W. Jensen and Tracey McKay-Lamb. It is is an interesting, powerful, fun, and unusual collection of essays by American Mormons gathered to discuss the collective, yet individual concept of Mormon Zion. Indeed, the essays are a powerhouse– I recommend skipping the pleasantries at the start and diving right into the first essay.
I first started to read the book before Christmas holidays, and found myself reading an essay, then placing the book aside to do all of the many things each of us are obligated to do for Christmas. After Christmas, I stayed in this pattern, doing all the things that each of us are obligated to do after Christmas—but this time, with a switch: I went back and re-read some of the earlier essays. The reasons I went back were because I really like the essay, or the essay hadn’t sat with me well. Sometimes on second reading, the essays I thought I loved became an essay I liked, because a new favourite had taken it’s place. Essays that I had not previously though too much about struck me on second reading, and resonated with me more after I took time to reflect. Each has it’s own strength and character; each made an impression.
This is one of the beauties of this book; at first reading many of the essays will strike you more boldly than others. But in the days following, essays that you might have felt less connected to begin to creep into your mind. You will then read those ones again, because they are the ones that resonate on a different level. When I first started reading, all of the essays by women were my favourites. Melissa Wei-Tsing Inyoue’s Folding Chairs made me long for the ward I grew up in. Her description of the layers of relationships within the church was strong, and I wondered what I might do to better build the church from within my own congregation. Linda Hoffman Kimball’s Apostles and Improv was something that resonated firmly with me; the issue of peticular voices within the church, but also the desire to work as a group, rather than as a series of individuals– as yet a sacred characteristic of Zion. Most of the writers agreed that Zion was not a perfect place, but Shawni Eyre Pothier’s Finding Zion Abroad was a reminder that Zion is also within one’s own family.
The only disappointment in the collection is the fact that none are written by individuals with citizenship outside of North America. But yet, the essays explained why it worked out like this: Heather Bennet Oman’s Of Chicken Salad Sandwiches started by describing what she calls new friendships—friendships that are “less than two years.” In the history of the church, and the forbidding of wards and stakes to be created outside of the physical Zion prior to 1958 (when Zion was most often presumed to be Utah), wards and stakes outside of the US are “new friends.” I disliked thinking about this; but also understand it to be an accurate description of the presumption of Zion. Although my Zion includes wards and branch outside of the US, the American missionaries visit, dipping their toes into my Zion, but their firmly rooted heels remain American. This overall collection left the impression that Zion still is a physical place: No longer just Utah, but North America. Not just a state of mind, but a distinctly North American state of mind.
Yet this “less than two-year” friendship does continue to develop, as represented in many of the book’s essays. Indeed, my favourite and my overall favourite essay in the collection is by Ignacio M. Garcia, titled A Barrio Perspective on Building Zion in the Twenty-First Century. In this essay, and in W. Paul Reeve’s Let Them Eat Cake, I was inspired to take action! To do something to make Zion real, bigger, better, more inclusive. Garcia’s Barrio is an important read for all members of the church, in understanding the impact of culture and what Zion means to church members of different cultures. It made me re-think my own position on service, community and barrios (neighbourhoods), and what a community bound in the light of Christ can do when using a shared an eye in creating Zion. Reeve’s Cake essay reminded me of the sweetness of service, how doing things that may seem small really change the individual doing the service more than the individuals receiving the service—on a global scale. Molly McLellan Bennion furthers this in her essay, Zion Without Walls, reminding that she, and so many others, find Zion where our lives and minds grow and develop. “If I were pressed to name a physical Zion, “she writes, “I would name my dock, a quiet place over deep water and beneath a broad sky.”
Many of the essays remind us that Zion is not permanent (none suggested that Zion was permanent); but rather that Zion is an ever altering of heart, mind and soul found within the individual, and within the church. “Zion is not Eden, the changeless place of stasis our mother Eve courageously chose to leave, with Adam by her side,” wrote Luisa M. Perkins in Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise. In this, I found hope—maybe friendships of two years are yet lasting, and closer than we realise. Maybe the concept of Zion could be those with heels firmly planted in African, Asian, and South American soil. As Kalani Tonga writes in her essay Defining Zion: “Zion means coming home.”
Though many of the essay encourage, recommend and suggest the expansion of Zion, this one paragraph, from James C. Olsen’s Adam’s and Eve’s Framework for Zion resonated with me on a personal level. It, among other essays, made me consider the Zion within me—and what I seek to improve about myself, my surroundings, and my service within the church. It reminded me that this really is a church of risk-takers, of bravery and of facing the unknown with faith: “Whether to hold fast or to creatively move forward in the face of uncertainty and finitude, whether to play Adam or Eve, is always a difficult dance. But we apostatize from the light of the Restoration and the Mormon ideal of Zion when we refuse to see the reason and necessity of both positions. This is true in our individual lives as well as our collective life within the church. Particularly as we work out together how to embody the revelations given to us as a people in the twenty first century. As the temple shows, I think the combination happens most effectively when those disposed toward one path or another come together to negotiate after the pattern of an eternal marriage. When we do, we make Zion possible—even if the complete fulfilment of Zion requires that we first walk through the wilderness.”
Because of the scope of the collection, I feel generally comfortable sharing this book the variety of people I know- Mormon or atheist, politically conservative or left-leaning, women and men. In the end, and from the start, these essays are about people seeking for a greater whole. You will agree, disagree, feel in unity, feel ostracised, feel comfortable and feel uncomfortable—sometimes all at once– with any and all of the essays at different times. But you’ll go back and read them again, and understand more …or perhaps less…. Of what you think the essayist meant, as you move through your own seasons and thoughts in the creation and development of Zion. Reading it is well worth it. Reading it a second and third time feels almost like an internal compulsion. The essays will stay with you, for the betterment of you. You can purchase the book from Amazon, or for those who live in Salt Lake, Benchmark Book is hosting an Evening with the Editors on 19 January 2016.