Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Book Revue: Rough Stone Rolling

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Knopf, 2005) has been long awaited. Years ago, I read Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (1984, U of Ill. Press). It was fantastic. More thoroughly researched and more objectively and insightfully analyzed than most Joseph Smith bios, it was a great read.

So when RSR came out, I was excited to read it. School and finances delayed me a bit, but several months ago I received RSR as a gift and read it as quickly as 1st year law courses would allow.

Overall, it is great. As well researched as JSBM was, RSR begins with a biographical survey of Joseph Smith’s maternal and paternal ancestors and the cultural climate of New England at that time. It then moves through Joseph’s early life and continues with the founding of the church. The rest is, of course, history.

The overall theme of RSR is progressive development, or in very Mormon terms, line upon line. Sometimes we Mormons tend to think of the church and the priesthood as having sprung, Minvera-like, fully formed from Joseph’s revelatory head. In reality, Joseph himself learned the organization of the church and the priesthood one step at a time. Bushman looks at the different versions of the first vision as an expression of Joseph’s growing understanding of that experience and his growing confidence in his calling leading him to reveal more and more of what had happened to him. He also examines the ways in which the Book of Mormon itself contributed to Joseph’s view of himself as a prophet called of God rather than just another visionary preacher.

The challenge in writing about Joseph Smith is that he is such a divisive figure. Everyone has an opinion and everyone has an axe to grind, an agenda, or at least a bias. Bushman readily acknowledges that he views Joseph as an inspired prophet and regards the church and priesthood as authentic. But this does not prevent him from taking a close, critical look at the stories that have surrounded Joseph and using an astute historian’s eye to separate undocumented folklore from documented fact. For example, Bushman makes no effort to de-emphasize the fact that most of the Book of Mormon was likely translated not looking directly at the plates with the Urim and Thummim, but using a seerstone in a hat with the plates out of sight. This model can be challenging to those who have grown up with the seminary video version with the sheet hung between Joseph and Oliver, but it does emphasize that the translation was a revelatory experience. In addition, the seerstone version is actually more consistent with the Book of Mormon itself. (See Alma 37:23).

is heavy on analysis and a bit lighter on facts. It is still well-sourced, and it won’t be incomprehensible to a novice, but it will be better if you already have some foundational knowledge of Joseph’s life. For a less analytic, more factual bio, Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (1977, Signature) is a great choice. Bushman puts emphasis on the cultural context of the events in Joseph’s life, but also seems to want to explore the aspects of Joseph’s character that transcend 19rh century America. The book would be incomplete without looking at these transcendental strands, but Bushman waxes philosophical, almost rhapsodical at times. It is a different, though no less valuable approach than Hill’s very journalistic style. I recommend it.


Cabeza said...

A fine revue. This one has been on my reading list since it came out. I've heard a lot of positive things about it, but this is the first one from a person I really trust as a critical reader. Perhaps I'll move it up the cue. Next up for me, however is Les Miserables. I decided midway through the semester that I would read it this summer.

As an aside (this being the Book Revue and everything), I thought I'd mention that I attempted my first Dinosaur Bar-b-que last weekend with the butterflied leg of lamb. Holy... cow... er, lamb. So good. And I love the Mutha Sauce. It has so many taste sensations happening at once. Great revue, great recommendation.

JKC said...

Yeah, it's definitely a good book. Have fun reading Les Mis. I've decided to read Don Quixote this summer, but I'm still trying to decide if I'll try to read it in the original Spanish. It would be cool to have done that, but it might affect my work with migrant farmworkers if a bunch of 16th century archaisms creep into my speech.

Congrats on the lamb. That's one I still haven't tried. I think my favorite might just be the plain old BBQ Charcoal Chicken. Last night I tried an adaptation of the pan-fried cod. I used salmon instead of cod and cornmeal instead of flour. The sauce was a BBQ base with chicken broth, lemon juice, and dill. It was good, but I think catfish would have been better than salmon though. Or fresh trout. The big thing here in Minn. is Mississippi Walleye. It's good, but perhaps a bit overrated.

Warren said...

That's a book I've been wanting to read, and I even started it twice at my parents house. I almost took it home with me, but I found out my dad was coming back from Bosnia and I decided I shouldnt raid my parent's house if they are still going to be there.

Our BBQ is currently out of gas, but the most sophisticated I ever got was the Brazilian rock salt trick and grilling pineapple. I've never cooked lamb before, but I do enjoy a good gyro.

Right now I'm reading "The Private Live of Chairman Mao." Mao's personal physician wrote about what it was like being with Mao, and it is one of the more fascinating books I've read. I'm not sure what's next on my list.

The Shark said...

It's MAO... and he's saying "GOODNIGHT"... to your CHILDREN!!