Book Review: Letters to a Young Mormon
I read Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon a bit ago, to the youngest Mormon I know well. (I think that she was six months, then.) I have been meaning to write a review since that time, but it is difficult to write well (or really, at all) about something so small that means something so big.
Because it is a personal book, perhaps I can begin personally: my Mormon heart has felt broken lately–by PR letter after PR letter, and the poor welcoming of women and men who should not have to fight to belong to the body of Christ. Miller’s words are some of the first to help unbreak it, because they are a reminder of everything good and beautiful in Mormonism. I am sincerely glad that my daughter has heard them, as I sincerely hope that she will hear them again, when she is young and old enough to take them in.
As the title suggests, the book is at least loosely inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It is made up of twelve letters: Agency, Work, Sin, Faith, Scripture, Prayer, History, Science, Hunger, Sex, Temples, and Eternal Life. Each one begins, “Dear S.,” and ends, “Love, A.” Each is written to his daughter.
She and her younger siblings were held close in Miller’s mind as he wrote and struggled to “address the real beauty and the real cost of living a Mormon life.” While he noted in his introduction that the letters are intended “for a young Mormon who is familiar with Mormon life but green in their faith,” I believe that they may be fruitful for anyone. All can benefit from his one hope “to show something of what it means to live in a way that refuses to abandon either life or Mormonism.”
Miller fulfills this hope, by 1) writing with great thoughtfulness and great care (both of these things exude every page) and 2) by writing about simple topics simply and not simply, at the same time. What I mean by this may be best clarified by my favorite Dane, Søren Kierkegaard.
In his preface to Works of Love, he tells us that he is offering Christian deliberations in the form of discourses. A commentator noted, “In the same year in which he wrote Works of Love, Kierkegaard made an explicit contrast in his journal between a ‘deliberation’ and an ‘upbuilding discourse.’”
‘A deliberation,’ he says, ‘does not presuppose the definitions as given and understood; therefore, it must not so much move, mollify, reassure, persuade, as awaken and provoke people and sharpen thought.’ Whereas an upbuilding discourse about love ‘presupposes that people know essentially what love is,’ a deliberation ‘must first fetch them up out of the cellar’ and ‘turn their comfortable way of thinking topsy-turvy with the dialectic of truth.’
Deliberation here is to provoke some type of thinking in the individual, while discourse is a more settled definition. In Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller may very well be offering Mormon deliberations in the form of letters. He provokes us to see, think, and live Mormonism differently. Such provocation should “awaken” (or begin to awaken) us to genuine Mormonism.
Neylan McBaine noticed the same thing. Her review likened Miller to
a Mormon C. S. Lewis, whose Mere Christianity or Screwtape Letters force Christians to reexamine all of the worn paradigms and rhetorics of our organized worship and instead inhale the pure essence of God’s glory.… Miller at once makes religion unknowable, ungraspable, while at the same time giving me the most concrete way to approach my faith that I have had for quite some time.
To illustrate, she pointed to my very favorite letter, “Prayer.” McBaine’s words on it are worth reading, as is the letter itself. I will add here, that Miller describes what happens when I try to pray more accurately than anything I have read before or since, through a deeply meaningful framing of forgetting and remembering.
When you pray, notice how the same thing happens almost every time. You address God and then you start to think about what you should say and then this prompts you to think about something else and then, caught up in thinking about this other thing, you forget that you were saying a prayer… Eventually, after a few minutes, you remember why you were kneeling there in the first place. This moment is the key. When, for the first time, you remember this, your prayer can start for real.
The substance of prayer is this willingness to remember, to heave your wandering mind back, once more, in the direction of God, and then, when it drifts off again, to heave it still another time. To pray is it practice remembering God.
Still other letters talk about other simple things that we all know something about, but that none of us understands fully or completely. The letter on sin is (very much) less on the typical Sunday School definition and (very much) more on the stories we cling to, and the shadows we hide in, that hide us from God, who “doesn’t love [our] stories, he loves [us].” The letter on faith is on faithfulness and the kind of fidelity exercised in marriage, but it is also on doubting.
The letter on scripture is also on the work of translating, that Miller suggests we must shoulder alongside Joseph Smith. He “always expected more revelations, and ‘translation’ was one vital name for the hard work of receiving them.” As you translate, use everything.
The wider you read in Laozi, Shakespeare, Austen, Dogen, Plato, Dante, Krishna, Sappho, Goethe, Confucius, Tolstoy, and Homer, the better off you’ll be. …Don’t be afraid for scripture and don’t be afraid of these other books. Claim it all as your own. Doubtless, the world’s best books have their flaws, but this just means that they too must be translated.
I could go on and on, but will refrain.
One part of me wished very badly that there would have been a letter on Mormon feminist issues. One other part of me was grateful that there wasn’t. I am nervous that I won’t explain this very well, but its absence, and my knowledge that S., the book’s single individual, is a female, suggests that everything beautiful and expansive in it is for women, also, when right now, that is the good hope that I need.
Lastly, I am grateful that Miller most frequently referred to God as “God,” which lets me envision God as Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, as a united pair, and I am grateful for the theme of grace that permeates every letter.
Please read this book. Please read it to yourself, and the young (and old) Mormons that you know.
If you have read this book, which letter did you love best, and why?
If you have, or haven’t, read this book, what letters would you write to the young Mormons in your life (whether children, nieces and nephews, grand children, students, etc.)?