Out of the Best Books: Introducing the Mormon Review
By Richard Lyman Bushman
The scripture that begins “and as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom, yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” may have been Joseph Smith’s favorite. He quoted it twice in the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer, and made the study of the best books the chief work of his School of the Prophets at Kirtland. Since his time, the scripture has been a favorite of all who appreciate the wide compass of Joseph Smith’s search for truth. It is inscribed in steel letters in the stairwell of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.
We launch the Mormon Review, an online journal of cultural criticism, in the spirit of seeking wisdom out of the best books. We ask: What is the meaning of this signal scripture in our time? How do we seek wisdom out of books today? We invite all who are engaged with Mormon culture to join this inquiry.
The task, as we conceive it, is to pursue the meaning for Mormons of the millions of items that constitute our larger cultural world. What are we to make of the books, movies, art, music, politics, and exhibitions swirling about in our environment? Contributors are invited to examine films, plays, art of any kind, TV shows, children’s books, philosophical treatises, novels, histories, documentaries, scriptures from other traditions, political speeches, poetry, popular songs, video games, entertainment sites like Disneyland--any cultural artifact that awakens their Mormon sensibilities. The only restriction is that these items must not be Mormon. Books by Mormons and about Mormons are reviewed in other journals. The Mormon Review will look outward. We believe the spirit of the best books scripture is to search outside of Mormonism for wisdom.
The phrase “best books” implies discrimination, and we know that even the classics must be read critically. They should not be naively accepted as gospel. We must be prepared to contest the thought of even the most honored writers and artists. The Mormon Review offers a public forum where Mormons can teach one another by exercising their critical powers on significant works
But criticism implies appreciation as well as attack. The “best books” scripture assures us that the best books contain wisdom. Working in that spirit, the characteristic Mormon perspective may more often be positive than negative. Are we not enjoined to seek after things virtuous, lovely, and of good report?
The wisdom Mormons find in their reading is most commonly a literary version of their own beliefs. We like to discover the familiar in unfamiliar places. We laugh at ourselves for wanting to baptize every great writer as a Mormon. But this practice need not embarrass us. Mormon criticism attempts to absorb the larger world, piece by piece, into Mormon culture. One way to make a text our own is to recognize the familiar in the unfamiliar. In hearing echoes of our own belief in great texts, we inevitably deepen our understanding and widen the scope of our faith.
We do not envision a single line of Mormon cultural criticism emerging from this undertaking. We expect each response to be individual and idiosyncratic. In our view, Mormon criticism will be the sum of many variegated parts. When accumulated and deposited, however, the essays submitted to the Mormon Review will form, we believe, an invaluable archive of twenty-first-century Mormons grappling with their world.
Essays of any length (optimally four or five pages) should be submitted through the review’s website. Reviews will be accepted beginning August 1 for the launch of the journal on September 1, 2009. The editorial board will judge essays on their relevance to Mormon culture, clarity of expression, and general interest.
I think that this is a tremendously worthwhile project, though I have some questions about how it will be executed. There are other fora where Mormons review non-Mormon cultural items (Meridian Magazine and Deseret News come to mind). Unfortunately, such reviews generally offer little more than a generic prude's point of view. They could have been written by any concerned conservative Christian author or just be a press release from Dr. James Dobson. In short, there is nothing particularly "Mormon" about the review itself, aside from its author.
This is the hurdle that the Mormon Review must overcome if it will distinguish itself as a more thoughtful version of the vanilla Mormon reviews described above. I have heard (or read) Bushman speak (or write) about his opinion that Mormonism has not yet proven to the world what non-theological contribution it has to make to humanity. The Mormon Review can be an important part of finding this community's special "something" or at least exploring whether Mormonism has anything non-theological to offer humanity. It seems that Bushman and the Mormon Review's editorial board have already recognized that there is not one strand of thinking that will be a Mormon viewpoint. Perhaps that by evaluating cultural productions based on Mormon principles and values, the participants may begin to nail down what exactly those principles are, and those that are relevant to cultural production (aside, that is, from the aforementioned generic prudishness). This is important to recognize, but will require a level of erudition and nuance that has previously been missing from Mormon efforts to engage a larger culture.