Book Review: The Mormonizing of America

Recently I was approached by Worthy Publishing with the opportunity to be one of a select group of bloggers to review this new release by best-selling author Stephen Mansfield. Having always had a fairly positive opinion of the Church of Later Day Saints, I was a little leery at first. I didn’t want to read a book that simply chose to pick apart a faith, or that paid all of its attention on some of the more peculiar practices of it’s members. Truth be told, I think if you look objectively at any religion, some of the rites and rituals are a little strange – my own faith included.

The subtitle of this new book is what convinced me to read it: How the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture. As the author repeatedly states, we are certainly living through a “Mormon Moment” and to learn what it is about this faith that seems to produce successful adults in numbers that belie their relatively small membership could be interesting. After finishing it, I have mixed feelings.

Mansfield begins with the right approach in mind. “[A] book about a people that takes every pain to refer to that people and their beliefs with derision need not have been written….Best to simply state what Mormons believe, having first established that it is not the view of the author. And now we have done so.”  He then provides a chapter’s worth of anecdotes about Mormons in America today. While asserting they are true, there is no form of attribution given, and while I am sure some variant of the numerous conversations recorded here happened, they come off as a bit forced, both in content and style. The point however is clearly made: Mormons are an impressive people with some odd beliefs. This premise colors all that is to follow.

The anecdotal, tone-setting evidence doesn’t cease at the end of the first chapter though. Mansfield uses this technique throughout the text, opening each chapter with a story to illustrate what the rest of the chapter will explain. At times this is helpful and informative, but too often it creates a bias before even delving into the given subject. The reader gets the sense that Mansfield truly does admire these people for what they have been able to accomplish, but it is as if he just can’t help himself. He is clearly critical of the Church of Later Day Saints’ theology and this comes through both in these vignettes of Mormon life, as well as in the detailed description of the unfolding of Mormon history.

In fact, the history of the Saints, including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the golden plates, the westward migration and everything in between, make up a large portion of the book. There is nothing really new or revelatory here as much of it has been covered already at length by other authors, and the author’s disapproving voice is thinly veiled behind this narrative. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the Mormons at this point. Judeo-Christian history is shrouded in the distant past, far from the kind of historical scrutiny that is being brought down around the Later Day Saints. I understand the scrutiny; when Mormons claim events have happened in the recent, documented, past there is no avoiding taking them to task when two versions of history do not agree. Still, it is, at the same time, unfortunate. The rest of the book turns to what, for me, was the more interesting story.

Regardless how strange, unprovable and odd their history may be, not many people can deny the fact that Mormons are among the most successful, charitable, family-oriented and civic minded people in America today. Why? Here Mansfield is at his best as he deftly makes the case that Mormonism is a truly American religion and that the facets that make one a good Mormon are the same facets that make one a successful and upstanding American. He calls this the “Mormon Machine” and it revolves around the religious priority of achievement, family, education, work, the free market, heritage, networking and an unabashed sense of American exceptionalism. It is easy to see how any group that seriously valued these concepts would find success in modern America.

After finally delivering on the promise of explaining why “the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture” Mansfield then once again falls into the trap of editorializing by including an appendix full of “Surprising Quotes from Mormon Leaders.” While there is nothing I can see that is factually inaccurate, the continual critiquing of the history and practice of this faith undermine what he states time and time again as his main thesis.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but I do wish he remained truer to his promise to present an objective view of this “Mormon Moment” we are all witnessing.

Book Review: The Shakespeare Thefts & The Fourth Fisherman

Over the past week I read two short books, The Shakespeare Thefts and The Fourth Fisherman. Both books were good but fairly quick reads, so I have decided to write a short two-fer this week.
It is hardly debatable that the two most important publications in terms of modern English language are the King James Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare. In 1623, two actors who had worked with Shakespeare sought to publish a collection of his work in order that the acting company could profit rather than the many knock offs that were circulating at the time. Only about 1,000 copies were printed, of those 232 remain accounted for. How do we know this? Because of the work of Eric Rasmussen and his crack team of Folio Hunters. Rasmussen formed his team in 1996 with the expressed aim of documenting as many surviving copies as possible and determining their provenance in the process. The Shakespeare Thefts can be looked at as a highlight reel of what they have been able to accomplish.

What they have done is to uncover “a fascinating world … populated with thieves, masterminds, fools, and eccentrics, all of whom have risked fortunes and reputations to possess a coveted First Folio.” What makes this book an enjoyable read is hearing these tales and the lengths they have gone to attain what is arguably the most famous book in the collecting world, such as, a nineteenth-century bricklayer who stole a Count’s personal copy and sold it for wrapping paper to shopkeepers, an accidental theft by a 20th century Pope, a shoe salesman disguised as a professor who stole one right out of a college reading room; and then there is my personal favorite involving a playboy living off stolen credit cards, Cubans, and the Folger Library. (I won’t spoil it. You have to read it to believe it.) 
If this book has a flaw it is that there is little flow to the narrative. It reads as a series of stand alone essays with little if anything moving in a linear direction. There are many tales of books they feel are out there but that they have failed to find. As a reader I kept waiting for the author to get back to those stories and tell me they found this one or that one, but this never happens. 
Overall though I can strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Shakespeare, or simply appreciates books for their own sake. It is a very quick read and by the end you will know more about how books are made, faked, stolen and retrieved than you did before. What more can you ask of a book.
If you paid any attention at all to the news a couple years back you will surely recognize the protagonists for half of this book. Three Mexican fishermen survived in a small open boat without any supplies, while drifting for more than nine months across 5,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Their perseverance, strength and ultimately their faith is what allowed them to survive.
At the same time Joe Kissack was a thousand miles away, both literally and figuratively. Externally he had all the trappings of success, but he too was adrift in a sea of hopelessness, addiction as well as a victim of his past. Kissack tells his tale and how the story of the fisherman and his eventual meeting with them allowed for a different kind of rescue. 
Kissack is a likable enough person so that the reader finds himself relating to and rooting for him, but it is in the riveting story telling surrounding the Mexican fishermen that this book really comes into its own. While this is very much a faith-based book, you do not need to be a person of faith to enjoy Kissack’s story-telling. Anyone who appreciates survival stories and all their frightening and sometimes gory details will appreciate it.

Book Review: The Serpent of Moses

Books, much like anything come with expectations. The same holds true for all kinds of entertainment media. If you are going to see an romance epic, you expect to shed some tears. Pick up a thriller and you expect to be kept awake at night, or at the very least, to suffer from a few quality nightmares. A treatise on history? There had better not be factual errors or clearly identifiable bias. As long as something meets our expectations we are generally pleased with our investment of time and cash. The Serpent of Moses by Don Hoesel completely met my needs in terms of an action-packed beach read.
Is it full of Indiana Jones styled unbelievability? Yup.
Is the good guy the stereo-typical hero who is brilliant but flawed with a devil-may-care attitude? You betcha.
Is the love interest a beautiful scientist? Almost, in this case she is a linguist, which of course our hero needs to decipher the ancient codes necessary to fine the long lost artifact, deal with his own troubled past, defeat the terrorists, evade the Mossad who are also…well…you get the idea.
Everyone needs some escapism once in a while, and this kind of books is mine. If you like them too, then I can strongly recommend The Serpent of Moses. In fact once I started reading I realized this is a sequel. Now I know where to turn the next time I need to kill a lazy afternoon on the deck. Thank you Mr. Hoesel.

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America

Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America, edited by Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole is a collection of essays from various classical scholars that attempts to flesh out the degree of influence classicism had on Jefferson, both personally and politically. This is no easy task, as the architect of Monticello, one of the most famous examples of neo-classical buildings in early America, and the scholar who was fluent in both Greek and Latin, in a letter to John Adams, “ridiculed Plato’s Republic; and in other correspondence, he dismissed the importance and refused to bemoan the loss of major portions of Aristotle’s Politics,” (56). Evidently, Thomas Jefferson’s views on the relevance  and importance of classicism was at best conflicted.

This collection contains ten essays broken down into two parts: Jefferson’s Classical World and Classical Influences. By keeping the focus broad the editors have done an excellent job of allowing the authors to present a vivid picture of the intellectual world of the Revolutionary period. Because of this, we are able to place Jefferson’s worldview within the context of his peers, and what emerges is a Jefferson who is not inline with many of his contemporaries in terms of classical thought.

Giving a thoughtful review of a collection of essays which cover such a scope as this, which ranges from such topics as classical moral theory, to childrearing and education, to an analysis of George Washington as Cincinnatus, to Aristotle and King Alfred, and to Pericles in America is challenging to say the least. However, the editors have again done an excellent job at collating these diverse essays into an insightful whole, which generally paints a cohesive picture of a Jefferson who, while personally enamoured with classical language, writings and architecture, none the less views ancient political theory with suspicion. While the individual authors in this book may disagree about whether the classics were foundational or illustrative for Jefferson, the overall books allows for a more open-ended dualistic answer.

The first essay, Ancients, Moderns and the Progress of Mankind, is by the editor, Peter Onuf, and it seeks out a kind of middle ground between those who see classics as foundational and those who see it merely as window dressing that the Founders put up to justify their ideas and actions. As such this is an apt beginning to this volume which lets each side of the argument have its say. Onuf rightly points out that Jefferson held a deep affection for the classical languages and read from them deeply and regularly, but he also cautioned his fellow revolutionaries not to look to the past as prescriptive of the future, “the circumstances of the world are too much changed for that,” (38). For Jefferson, a reading of Locke or Descarte was more beneficial, for the concept of rights was conspicuously absent from classical political philosophy. So while the idea of equality and individual rights drew Jefferson away from the classics in his public life, his private joy from the language never left him.

Michael Zuckert in his essay, Thomas Jefferson and Natural Morality, presents a Jefferson with a stronger break from the classical past. In this historian’s view his subject was influenced by and mostly  in agreement with such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke and Mandeville in advocating for a “selfish system” of public morality. The idea that one acted ethically for essentially selfish reasons of course flies in the face of the classical concept of public virtue for its own sake. However, Jefferson is somewhat conflicted here because while on the whole he agrees with the “selfish system” he also is sympathetic towards the view that “ [m]an was endowed with a sense of right and wrong…This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, or feeling; it is the true foundation of morality,” (64). So, again we see a Jefferson who is in conflict, though here it is not with the past, but with the present.

While Jefferson was adamant about the desirability of a classical education, he was a creature of his time and meant that education to be for males alone. “Classicism was one of the barriers keeping men in one sphere and women in another, part of the natural order of things,” (81). Though Caroline Winterer in her essay shows how this view was changing and in fact evolved over the course of Jefferson’s life and he in fact becomes a cipher of the educated public at large as he encourages his daughter some, and his granddaughters more to study the classics. One of the most interesting components of this essay are the detailed reading lists that Jefferson gave those under his tutelage. These would make for a useful personal study in and of themselves.

One can hardly compile a book about Jefferson and antiquity without devoting some space to architecture, and Richard Wilson’s contribution fills that void here. According to Wilson “[a]n understanding of Jefferson’s employment of classical architecture can be approached by an examination of three issues: the sources of his knowledge and training; his usage of classicism; and the meanings the buildings convey,” (102). The end result is that Jefferson wanted to create a lasting architectural sense for the new nation and he did that through a combination of ancient and modern. So we see even in Jefferson’s aesthetics he was a blend of classical and modern theory.

The next essay veers a bit from straightforward Jeffersonian scholarship to consider whether George Washington should be considered a new version of Cincinnatus or Marcus Aurelius. Author Maurie McInnis relates how in fact both are accurate. In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution the image of Cincinnatus, the Roman leader who stepped away from power and returned to his fields, was appealing to a new nation fearful of establishing a new aristocracy. Washington did nothing to dissuade people of the comparison and may have even gone out of his way to foster it. Jefferson, as should be no surprise at this point, was both supportive and suspicious of the image of Cincinnatus. While on the one hand the agricultural ideal it represented was much in line with Jefferson’s feelings, on the other hand the society of Cincinnatus which sprung up around Washington’s former officers felt too much like a new burgeoning aristocracy for Jefferson’s tastes. However, his fears were unfounded and as time went on and the South needed to assert its own strength and military heritage in the face of an ever encroaching North, the image of Washington as Marcus Aurelius prevailed. In keeping with what many other historians have claimed, George Washington’s image has been fairly malleable over time.

Part Two begins with an essay by co-editor Nicholas Cole entitled, America and Ancient and Modern Europe. Here Cole makes the case that many in the Revolutionary period held beliefs like Jefferson in that they admired classicism and used its vocabulary, but were more influenced by modern political theory and the likes of Machiavelli for their current situation.  According to Jefferson the ancients “had just ideas of the value of personal liberty, but not at all…the structure of government best calculated to preserve it,” (173). He claims that intellectuals of the time were immersed in classical works so that the language of the ancients was often used to justify current actions; they “legitimized resistance and revolution in america,” (180). One has a hard time not seeing the irony in 21st century movements like the Tea Party using the writings of The Founding Fathers in much the same manner.

Peter Thompson brings Jefferson’s ideas surrounding demography to the fore in his piece, Aristotle and King Alfred in America. Common among the revolutionary set of the time was the idea of creating some kind of utopia, however as history showed many newly formed colonies simply could not support their ideals for demographic reasons. The problem was how to set up a society where an aristocracy was prohibited from occurring. In looking for solutions they more often turned to older Anglo-Saxon models (King Alfred) than to Greek city-states (Aristotle). Jefferson supported this view as a way of breaking the cycle many thinkers thought inevitable; namely that nations went through predetermined life cycles that always ended in dissolution.

Eran Shalev tries to make sense of the fact that while many of Jefferson’s contemporaries were citing classical sources at breakneck speed during the Revolutionary period he is virtually silent in this area. His argument is that the ancients were irrelevant to Jefferson because the ancients did not solve their inherent problems. Greece was conquered; Rome fell. While many saw decline as an unavoidable end for all systems of government once they enter the phase of luxury, Jefferson saw time not as cyclical, but linear. He was much more a man of the Enlightenment who saw mankind progressing ever upward, hence his lack of emphasis on the classics at this time.

The next to last essay discusses the influence of a single classical author as an example for the whole. Cicero, while often cited and read in the Revolutionary period was not foundational to it, according to Paul Rahe. The classics gave inspiration to the revolutionaries of the 18th century, but their solutions could not be prescriptive as the problems they faced were different. The Enlightenment caused the 18th century to be much more aligned with pragmatism than the classical concept of public virtue. In fact, “they denied that pride, strength and courage were virtues at all …[and]… in the end prove inseparable from corruption, vice, and the venality which ultimately destroyed even the pretense of liberty at Rome,” (255).

Classical Greece and Rome “played a significant role in the thought of the founding era, but they did not put the founders in a straightjacket that cut off all freedom of movement,” (265). The final essay, Pericles in America, by Jennifer Roberts, shows, through the evaluation of one man’s image, America’s relation to the classics. The subject of this essay went through periods of adulation and repudiation in large part due to the quality of the sources about him and the tendency of moderns to shoehorn the past into a guise that best illustrates the modern’s needs. This fact leads Roberts to devalue classicism’s importance as a foundational piece of American politics. “The fluidity of Pericles’ image strongly discourages placing too much emphasis on classical influence in American political rhetoric,” (293).

In the end this book does an excellent job at showing the complexity of the issue discussed therein. Thomas Jefferson was very much a man of his time, and the competing influences of 18th century America and Europe lead him to both revere and recoil from the wisdom of the ancients. This balanced approach is of course almost a requisite for any people engaged in creating societies. The past can inform and inspire, but imagination and creativity in the face of new obstacles requires us to invent.