Friday, February 20, 2009

Rough Stone Rolling Review

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I originally wrote this as a response to someone else's review. I think that it would also make a good review in its own right, so I am also posting it here. First, let me briefly review the content of the review I was responding to. Their review said that they didn't like the book because they felt that it was "digging up dirt" on the prophet, and they quoted several of the brethren saying that this would be a bad idea. They pointed out that they believed that Joseph was a "hero" and that by portraying Joseph as a man and not as a hero, the book was un-faithful to Joseph. The following was my response to those thoughts:

I have spoken to Richard Bushman about his book at a symposium about helping people who's faith has been damaged by anti-Mormon propaganda. I believe that his purpose wasn't to "dig up dirt" on the prophet to show that he was "human." I agree with all the quotes he gave that implied that such an approach isn't usually a good course. However, since we are living in a world where many other people are digging up such "dirt" it isn't healthy for the enemies of the prophet to be the only ones talking about the difficult questions. When that happens, people lose their testimonies. We need good people who can honestly say, "ya, I know that about Joseph, and I believe he is a prophet anyway." From what Bushman said at the symposium, I believe that this was his motivation and purpose, and I believe that he did a good job. If you already have questions about Joseph, then this is a great resource to find answers to your questions. Sticking our collective heads in the sand is not helpful for anyone's testimony. I believe that Richard Bushman and his book, have saved the testimonies of many many people, many of them people I know.

Of course there is a danger here, in missionary speak, we don't want to "raise" the concern in order to "resolve" the concern. If you leave a cow-pie alone, it scabs over, but if you repeatedly kick it, then it stinks forever. Therefore, there must be a balance. The real question is, did Richard Bushman hit that balance? I believe that the answer to that question depends on what you think the purpose of the book was.

If he was writing for the Church, or primarily for church members, I would agree with you that he missed the mark. On the other hand, "No Man Knows My History" (essentially an anti-Mormon book) has been the standard textbook in American History classes that deal with Joseph. If Richard was trying to write a balanced textbook to replace "No Man Knows My History" in such classes, one that non-members would accept and actually be willing to use as a replacement for their un-balanced current book, then he succeeded, and did so brilliantly! If he had instead shared his testimony, then they would not have been willing to use the book. He has a testimony, and shares it often, but in other places and for other audiences. It is all about who his intended audience was. Many non-members will now be getting a much more favourable view of the Prophet than they otherwise would have been getting.

He also succeeded brilliantly if his audience was members of the Church who have questions about Joseph raised by enemies of the Lord's Prophet. Many members are now getting their questions about the prophet answered by someone who can say "yes, that happened, but does that really mean that Joseph wasn't a prophet?" Often what happens instead is that someone with a question who asks for answer is given the a response from a well meaning but ignorant member that goes something like: "I have never heard that before! It must be a lie!" Usually this is followed by the questioner turning to the history, only to find out that it isn't a lie, and really did happen. Then our questioning member feels lied to not by enemies of the Church, but by the Church itself, and then they leave the Church. This just should not happen. As a teacher of the Gospel, the book has been remarkably helpful for me, and has helped me to be better prepared to answer my student's questions.

If Bushman had written another biography that praised all of Joseph's successes and ignored all the hard questions, (and we already have plenty of those) then the secular world would still be using "No Man Knows My History" and believers with questions about the first vision, seer-stones, treasure hunting, polygamy, and the restoration of the endowment, would still have no sympathetic source to go to. The enemies of the Church would again be the only people dealing with the hard questions. What a shame that would be!

In the end, the world is better off because Bushman wrote this biography. Bushman's purpose wasn't to "dig up dirt" on the prophet, but rather to point out that the "dirt" that has already been dug up really isn't as bad as people sometimes think. Once it is placed in its historical context, and once we see Joseph as a man, then the so called "dirt" isn't such a big deal, and we can get back to the work of thinking of Joseph as the Prophet of God, and the "Hero" that he was.

Information comes from bibliographies, certainty comes from the Spirit of God and in no other way. I know that Joseph was a prophet of God because the Spirit of God has told me that this is true. What I now have because of Brother Bushman's wonderful bibliography is more information about Joseph's life.

Some have suggested censuring people, and preventing them from writing such biographies, thinking that this will save testimonies, but I believe that Bushman's book will help more people's testimonies than it will hurt. Further, if you believe that Bushman got Joseph's life wrong then the answer is that we need more biographies being written, not less. The great thing about biographies, is that if you disagree with the conclusions of one, by all means, write your own. As someone who has written and published a bit about Church topics, I know how hard it can be to do a good job, make everyone happy, and say the right things for your intended audience without offending some other audience. Let's see if you can do a better job! If you can, I will be happy to give your biography a good review too :-)

View all my reviews.


Noel Hausler said...

I find your comments on Bushman's book interesting. I attended a seminar attended by Bushman and others on Joseph Smith. Interesting gentleman. For LDS his book has disturbed some and helped others deal with difficult issues in LDS history. As someone who once had some corres with Wes Walters, I found some of Bushman's book annoying. Bushman wrote a paper in Dialogue, Spring 1969 in response to a paper by Wes Walters who questioned whether there was any revival in Palmyra. In Walter's view there was none. Bushman seems to rely on the work if Milton Backman who could not find anything except some meeting of Clergy down the road and who supposes that there would have been a revival meeting then. However the evidence seems to point more to a revival in 1823-24. Smith Snr refused to join along with the others in the family because the preacher said that the late deceased son, Alvin had gone to hell. Since that date was I think 1823, the revival must have occured then. Dr Kipp in Books and Culture, a Christian Review does a good job pointing out some of the shortcomings of Bushman's book while acknowledgeing its strengths

Jay McCarthy said...

Interesting review James.

For me, there is no Joseph Smith except the Joseph Smith from RSR, because I read it within a few weeks of hearing about the Restoration.

The idea that you say, "Oh I've heard of that and he's a prophet anyways" is very strange to me, mainly because of the 'anyways'. That's just what he was like I see no reason to be embarrassed or defensive about any of it. A lot of the "controversial" stuff is very inspiring to me.

RSR was hugely important for my testimony and I feel like Joseph is quite the hero given the data it presents.

James Carroll said...

Jay, you are a living example of the fact that this book can build testimonies, even the testimonies of "beginners" in the gospel. Thanks for sharing.