So any new writing about Smith inevitably must move toward some kind of judgment about these radically different views.
That requirement makes Jane Barnes' new book (to be released late next week), Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet, both engaging and annoying, fascinating and frustrating.
Indeed, this book is really several books in one, and it would have been good had an editor convinced Barnes to separate out some of the non-Smith stories going on here -- stories of Barnes' failed marriage, her later same-sex relationship, her care for a man who eventually dies of Parkinson's disease, her. . .well, you get the idea.
And yet, in the end, this is a remarkably engaging book. I read every word of it, even though I sometimes wanted to speak harshly to the author. Why, for instance, did we need to hear her crazy rifts about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn with Smith on Hill Cumorah, the western New York location where Smith said he found the golden plates he translated into the Book of Mormon? I just didn't get that, even though I know Barnes was trying to say something about the mystical, magical, innovative, ironic, inventive Smith.
Barnes got introduced to Smith through work she did on a documentary about the Mormons for the PBS show Frontline. Smith entranced her. She found him wildly wonderful and almost perfectly implausible. But there was something so endearing about him that she fell for him.
Indeed, she fell so hard that she moved well down the road toward conversion to Mormonism before she finally realized that there were certain beliefs taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that she simply could not buy into. So she remains an outsider to Mormonism (despite some relatives of hers who, she discovered, were early Mormon followers in the time of Smith).
From her position as an admiring outsider, we get a sympathetic picture of Mormonism in which she denies Smith was a fraud and declares the Book of Mormon to be "a strange work of God's genius."
What I liked about this book was its clear and compelling biographical information about Smith, who was, indeed, an American original -- one who was martyred for his faith. Although the story of the author's fascination with him was worth telling, there was entirely too much Barnes in the book.
Still, if you want to get a good sense of Smith and the controversial religion he created, this book is a good place to start. And it has the advantage of avoiding the kind of rancid dismissal of Mormonism that issues from some of the same rigid Christians who denigrate Islam, too.
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WHO ARE THE SIKHS?
When I heard CNN break the news yesterday about the terrible shooting at a Sikh temple south of Milwaukee, the anchors seemed overly baffled about Sikhism, but at least were wise enough to acknowledge their ignorance and say they needed some expert help. If you, too, don't know much about the Sikhs, whom I came to admire a great deal when I lived in India for two years of my boyhood, perhaps these links will help: Click here and here and, of course, click here for the inevitable Wikipedia entry.
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P.S.: Until I fixed it late yesterday, I had the wrong location for an event I invited you to attend this Wednesday. So here's the invitation again corrected for place: I invite you to go to the Downtown (not Plaza) Branch of the Kansas City Public Library this Wednesday evening to hear my friend and fellow Second Presbyterian Church elder Douglas Hundley talk about why it's important still to read the King James Version of the Bible. For details, click here.