Book Review Series: First Principles and Ordinances
This was an unusual book for me to review. First off, our own Rachel had already done a review of it. Secondly, my own physical location made the book an unusual thesis for examination as one of the concepts of the author is that of the church as a community. I live a three hour drive each way from the nearest church branch, so we have ecclesiastical permission to share the sacrament at home as a family. I am not officially in any branch, I have no official calling, and am far enough from a temple that regular attendance is impossible. Yet I found Samuel Brown’s Mormon communal exegesis as one of my favourite parts of the book. He refers to the church a community of saints who strive in varied pulses creating an interdependent ‘body of Christ’ that is in need of all of the variations of church goers:
“[The church is] a hospital for sinners instead of a museum for saints. The church, both a hospital and a museum, allows all of us to be both sinner and saint in a state of continual interdependence.”(7)
Brown was careful to not limit this, the body of Christ in terms that related only to individual families. Thus, he places all of us- including the oft-neglected unmarried or childless saints — in a single, unified, eternal family, striving as a community in Christ. This community is a combination of hospital and museum, where we are individually healed, and often simultaneously set examples for others who strive mimic our positive traits. In this light, I recalled the death of my own father; he was a convert who smoked heavily in his pre-church days, and possibly even in his post-conversion days. Though he had stopped smoking well before I was born, the seeds that would later grow lung cancer still took his life. In the time of his dying, the faith-inspired museum that became my mother was yet broken, but empowered by the healing balm of those “hospital workers” who brought us meals and supported our family in ways that helped to heal us at such a difficult time. This is one type of the combination of hospital and museum Brown envisions the church, and I liked it.
This idiom further fits well within the frame of Brown’s piece in discussing the community of church members as the body of Christ. Breathing life into this was another favourite part of the book, which in essence was the entire chapter on the Holy Ghost. If for no other reason, I recommend purchasing this book for this chapter alone. It is in this combination of community, the body of Christ and the spirit of the Holy Ghost that Brown writes:
“We individual saints are the body of Christ, and a collective spirit matches that collective body. When we partake of the spirit together in worship services, when we receive the formal gift of the Holy Ghost as part of our confirmation, we participate in a community. The Holy Ghost contains within itself the paradoxical elements of our experience of community. The Holy Ghost may provide us wisdom and revelation that is only for us, something so sacred and specific that we have no way to communicate it to another human being. But there are also times when we experience the Holy Ghost with other people. The bonds thus created can possess staggering power.” (116)
In discussion of the physical and mental aspects of the ordinance of the Holy Ghost, I found reverence and new symbolism that I have chosen to adopt within my own life. Most importantly was the generous addition of the discussion of the Holy Ghost in regard to mental illness. Brown has personal experience in this area, and his thoughts are charitable beyond what I have otherwise read or been taught previously in church texts. This is important for all church members, and possibly more important for women as recent research suggests that women are 40% more likely to develop mental illness in their lifetimes than men. In specifically addressing depression and anxiety, and the impression that the Holy Ghost is absent when in these states of mind, Brown writes, “People who love us – who are willing to reassure us, to pray with us, to walk the road with us- can bring the Holy Ghost to us.” (124)
The benevolence in which Brown reminds all of us to be gentle on ourselves, and those who are suffering from mental illness, is one of the best examples of Christlike love I can recall. I found this to be equal to the sense of my own responsibility to be more patient, trusting and loving as a source who might be in position to “bring the Holy Ghost,” to another (an important visiting teaching reminder for me). These two concepts make this a powerful resource for those who are dealing with or are supporting loved ones who suffer from depression or anxiety.
I acknowledge that in this and other examples, I felt the spirit. On more than one occasion, my eyes welled with tears in reading many of the personal stories shared by the author. This is a book that is done by a man who clearly loves God, and finds reassurance of this love in the simple structures he sees, and has framed them for us via the 4th Article of Faith. In this, I made notes on a handful pages, listing short treatises that I thought would be relevant and interesting to friends and family who came to mind as I read. And as a non-American resident, I greatly appreciated Brown’s viewpoint that the church is indeed different from congregation to congregation, but such differences are unified in the ritual pattern of ordinances (85).
However, the book is not perfect. It has been a significant amount of time since I lived in the US, so some of the occasional American-styled idioms within the pages of the book caused me to pause and sometimes google what the idioms meant. Yet other colloquialisms won my heart- for example this beauty:
“What is the relationship with Christ if we see him as a celestial vending machine? He receives our supernatural dollar bills and dispenses blessings like a can of soda.”(50)
These inclusions did not make the work any more or less easy or delightful to read, but offered enough distraction that my attention sometimes was directed away from what Brown was trying to say. Those who are better familiar than I am with American colloquialisms would have no challenge with this.
I confess that I was soured by one of the early examples used by Brown, one that I have not yet been able to shake. It was this:
I remember well the confession of one faithful sister I met years ago. She explained to me in weary monotone, “I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I am not celestial material. They say the terrestrial kingdom is beautiful, and I will just have to settle for that. Her son had died outside of the church, and no amount of reassurance of the power of God’s grace could convince her that she could be redeemed in the face of her supposed failure as a mother in Zion. She had been a wonderful and blameless mother, but she could not forgive herself […. ] She needed to find in the valley of the shadow of death a road to Christ’s rest. (51)
I understand the point that Brown is trying to make regarding the grace of Christ, and I appreciate Brown’s regular and sustained inclusion of women as examples in much of this work. But this paragraph is an example that reflects a feeling I had in reading the overall book, wherein his analysis seemed to lack (for my taste) the perspective of the woman or women. I do not know the woman in the above example, but in reading Brown’s words, I sensed a woman who had been told since she was a sunbeam that the only job God had for her in His kingdom was that of a mother, wherein she perceived she had failed. In neglecting to address the fact that women are often taught that their only divine calling (even within a community) is that of mother, Brown’s judgement of her inability to “forgive herself” struck me as impatient, and perhaps absent of perspective. This habit seemed repeated to me in Brown’s discussion of Mary (98) (I have a different take on her) , and again in discussion of the temple. Though the text is filled with female examples, I am not convinced that he took into account the differences in the ways women experience, and may therefore interpret temple covenants and ordinances compared to men (I personally believe the entire endowment is symbolic- women/bride/church and men/bridegroom/Christ– possibly in an even more simplified symbolism than what Brown envisions). However, even with this, the book is yet a powerful resource for women, and an important analysis of the body of Christ for all church members, regardless of gender.
In the end, I plan to purchase this book as a gift for someone special this Christmas (my copy is all scribbled through with notes now- re-gifting is out!) and I feel impressed to repeat that the chapter on the Holy Ghost was particularly inspirational for me, and reminded me of the responsibility that I have in sharing the spirit of Christ with all of those whom I know. This reminder has invaluable, and I am grateful for Brown’s text in prompting me in such a wise and important manner.
This is a part of the Exponent Book Review Series and Cyber Monday Giveaway. By making a thoughtful comment on this post, subscribing to the Exponent, or making a donation to Exponent II by sending a PayPal donation to firstname.lastname@example.org, you will be entered into a drawing to win one of many books being reviewed! Check the intro post for information and terms. Entries accepted until the 5th of December 2015.