The DR Book Collection: Catch-Up #2

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I’m behind on my book reviews, so I’m once again going to forego the mini-reviews and instead post the books’ descriptions with an accompanying video.

Image result for annie mckee how to be happy at workAnnie McKee, How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017): “”I’m working harder than I ever have, and I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.” If you’re a manager or leader, these words have probably run through your mind. So many of us are feeling fed up, burned out, and unhappy at work: the constant pressure and stress, the unending changes, the politics—people feel as though they can’t give much more, and performance is suffering. But it’s work, after all, right? Should we even expect to be fulfilled and happy at work? Yes, we should, says Annie McKee, coauthor of the bestselling Primal Leadership. In her new transformative book, she makes the most compelling case yet that happiness―and the full engagement that comes with it―is more important than ever in today’s workplace, and she sheds new light on the powerful relationship of happiness to individual, team, and organizational success. Based on extensive research and decades of experience with leaders, this book reveals that people must have three essential elements in order to be happy at work: A sense of purpose and the chance to contribute to something bigger than themselves; A vision that is powerful and personal, creating a real sense of hope; Resonant, friendly relationships. With vivid and moving real-life stories, the book shows how leaders can use these powerful pillars to create and sustain happiness even when they’re under pressure. By emphasizing purpose, hope, and friendships they can also ensure a healthy, positive climate for their teams and throughout the organization. How to Be Happy at Work deepens our understanding of what it means to be truly fulfilled and effective at work and provides clear, practical advice and instruction for how to get there—no matter what job you have” (Amazon).

Image result for a short stay in hellSteven L. Peck, A Short Stay in Hell (Strange Violin Editions, 2012): “As a faithful Mormon, Soren Johansson has always believed he’ll be reunited with his loved ones in an eternal hereafter. Then, he dies. Soren wakes to find himself cast by a God he has never heard of into a Hell whose dimensions he can barely grasp: a vast library he can only escape from by finding the book that contains the story of his life. In this haunting existential novella, author, philosopher, and ecologist Steven L. Peck explores a subversive vision of eternity, taking the reader on a journey through the afterlife of a world where everything everyone believed in turns out to be wrong” (Amazon).

Image result for the christ who heals givensTerryl L. Givens, Fiona Givens, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saves Us (Deseret Books, 2017): “In a world increasingly prone to doubt, a foundation in Christ is the only sure basis of a durable discipleship. And for Latter-day Saints, the Jesus Christ revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith is, in some very significant ways, a different kind of Christ than the Jesus of modern Christianity. The Christ of the restored gospel collaborated with Heavenly Parents for our salvation even before the foundation of the world, “does not anything” save it be for our benefit (2 Nephi 26:24), and is determined to patiently guide and nurture every one of God’s children into an eternal heavenly family. Most significantly, this Christ does not rescue us from a condition of original sin or depravity. Rather, He is primarily a healer of the wounds incident to a long-planned sojourn, one intended to immerse us in the trials, pains, and soul-stretching of this mortal schoolroom. He is not only the most remarkable being in the history of religious thought; He is, in fact, The Christ Who Heals” (Amazon).

Image result for origins tysonNeil deGrasse Tyson, Donald Goldsmith, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004): “Our true origins are not just human, or even terrestrial, but in fact cosmic. Drawing on recent scientific breakthroughs and the current cross-pollination among geology, biology, astrophysics, and cosmology, Origins explains the soul-stirring leaps in our understanding of the cosmos. From the first image of a galaxy birth to Spirit Rover’s exploration of Mars, to the discovery of water on one of Jupiter’s moons, coauthors Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith conduct a galvanizing tour of the cosmos with clarity and exuberance” (Amazon).

Image result for the council of fiftyThe Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal About Mormon History, ed. Matthew J. Grow, R. Eric Smith (BYU Religious Studies Center, Deseret Book, 2017): “Three months before his death, Joseph Smith established the Council of Fifty, a confidential group that he believed would protect the Latter-day Saints in their political rights and one day serve as the government of the kingdom of God. The Council of Fifty operated under the leadership of Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young, playing a key role in Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign and in preparing for the Mormon exodus to the West. The council’s minutes had never been available until they were published by the Joseph Smith Papers in September 2016, meaning that the council has been the subject of intense speculation for 170 years. In this book of short essays, fifteen leading Mormon scholars explore how the newly available minutes alter and enhance our understanding of Mormon history. The scholars narrate and analyze the contributions of the records of the council to key questions, such as Joseph Smith’s views of earthly and heavenly governments; the presidential campaign; Mormon relationships with American Indians; explorations of possible settlements sites, such as Texas and California; the “lost teachings” of Latter-day Saint leaders of that era; and the leadership style of Brigham Young” (Amazon).

Image result for did jesus existBart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012): “In Did Jesus Exist? historian and Bible expert Bart Ehrman confronts the question, “Did Jesus exist at all?” Ehrman vigorously defends the historical Jesus, identifies the most historically reliable sources for best understanding Jesus’ mission and message, and offers a compelling portrait of the person at the heart of the Christian tradition. Known as a master explainer with deep knowledge of the field, Bart Ehrman methodically demolishes both the scholarly and popular “mythicist” arguments against the existence of Jesus. Marshaling evidence from within the Bible and the wider historical record of the ancient world, Ehrman tackles the key issues that surround the mythologies associated with Jesus and the early Christian movement. In Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman establishes the criterion for any genuine historical investigation and provides a robust defense of the methods required to discover the Jesus of history” (Amazon).

Image result for all-or-nothing marriageEli J. Finkel, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work (Dutton, 2017): “Eli J. Finkel’s insightful and ground-breaking investigation of marriage clearly shows that the best marriages today are better than the best marriages of earlier eras. Indeed, they are the best marriages the world has ever known. He presents his findings here for the first time in this lucid, inspiring guide to modern marital bliss. The All-or-Nothing Marriage reverse engineers fulfilling marriages—from the “traditional” to the utterly nontraditional—and shows how any marriage can be better. The primary function of marriage from 1620 to 1850 was food, shelter, and protection from violence; from 1850 to 1965, the purpose revolved around love and companionship. But today, a new kind of marraige has emerged, one oriented toward self-discover, self-esteem, and personal growth. Finkel combines cutting-edge scientific research with practical advice; he considers paths to better communication and responsiveness; he offers guidance on when to recalibrate our expectations; and he even introduces a set of must-try “lovehacks.” This is a book for the newlywed to the empty nester, for those thinking about getting married or remarried, and for anyone looking for illuminating advice that will make a real difference to getting the most out of marriage today” (Amazon).

Image result for divine fury mcmahonDarrin M. McMahon, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (Basic Books, 2013):Genius. With hints of madness and mystery, moral license and visionary force, the word suggests an almost otherworldly power: the power to create, to divine the secrets of the universe, even to destroy. Yet the notion of genius has been diluted in recent times. Today, rock stars, football coaches, and entrepreneurs are labeled ‘geniuses,’ and the word is applied so widely that it has obscured the sense of special election and superhuman authority that long accompanied it. As acclaimed historian Darrin M. McMahon explains, the concept of genius has roots in antiquity, when men of prodigious insight were thought to possess—or to be possessed by—demons and gods. Adapted in the centuries that followed and applied to a variety of religious figures, including prophets, apostles, sorcerers, and saints, abiding notions of transcendent human power were invoked at the time of the Renaissance to explain the miraculous creativity of men like Leonardo and Michelangelo. Yet it was only in the eighteenth century that the genius was truly born, idolized as a new model of the highest human type. Assuming prominence in figures as varied as Newton and Napoleon, the modern genius emerged in tension with a growing belief in human equality. Contesting the notion that all are created equal, geniuses served to dramatize the exception of extraordinary individuals not governed by ordinary laws. The phenomenon of genius drew scientific scrutiny and extensive public commentary into the 20th century, but it also drew religious and political longings that could be abused. In the genius cult of the Nazis and the outpouring of reverence for the redemptive figure of Einstein, genius achieved both its apotheosis and its Armageddon. The first comprehensive history of this elusive concept, Divine Fury follows the fortunes of genius and geniuses through the ages down to the present day, showing how—despite its many permutations and recent democratization—genius remains a potent force in our lives, reflecting modern needs, hopes, and fears” (Amazon).

Image result for against empathyPaul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (HarperCollins, 2016): “We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it. Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In AGAINST EMPATHY, Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion. Basing his argument on groundbreaking scientific findings, Bloom makes the case that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations—who to give money to, when to go to war, how to respond to climate change, and who to imprison—are too often motivated by honest, yet misplaced, emotions. With precision and wit, he demonstrates how empathy distorts our judgment in every aspect of our lives, from philanthropy and charity to the justice system; from medical care and education to parenting and marriage. Without empathy, Bloom insists, our decisions would be clearer, fairer, and—yes—ultimately more moral. Brilliantly argued, urgent and humane, AGAINST EMPATHY shows us that, when it comes to both major policy decisions and the choices we make in our everyday lives, limiting our impulse toward empathy is often the most compassionate choice we can make” (Amazon).

The DR Book Collection: Catch-Up

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

So, I’m way behind on my book posts (much like I was behind on my TV/movies posts). So, I’m going to forego the mini-reviews and instead post the books’ descriptions with an accompanying video.

Image result for mindsightDaniel J. Siegel, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation (Bantam Books, 2010): “This groundbreaking book, from one of the global innovators in the integration of brain science with psychotherapy, offers an extraordinary guide to the practice of “mindsight,” the potent skill that is the basis for both emotional and social intelligence. From anxiety to depression and feelings of shame and inadequacy, from mood swings to addictions, OCD, and traumatic memories, most of us have a mental “trap” that causes recurring conflict in our lives and relationships. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, shows us how to use mindsight to escape these traps. Through his synthesis of a broad range of scientific research with applications to everyday life, Dr. Siegel has developed novel approaches that have helped hundreds of patients free themselves from obstacles blocking their happiness. By cultivating mindsight, all of us can effect positive, lasting changes in our brains—and our lives. A book as inspiring as it is profound, Mindsight can help us master our emotions, heal our relationships, and reach our fullest potential” (Amazon).

Image result for what makes love lastJohn Gottman, Nan Silver, What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal (Simon & Schuster, 2012): “In this insightful book, celebrated research psychologist and couples counselor John Gottman plumbs the mysteries of love and shares the results of his famous “Love Lab”: Where does love come from? Why does some love last, and why does some fade? And how can we keep it alive? Based on laboratory findings, this book shows readers how to identify signs, behaviors, and attitudes that indicate a fraying relationship and provides strategies for repairing what may seem lost or broken” (Amazon).

Image result for islam a short historyKaren Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (Modern Library, 2002): “No religion in the modern world is as feared and misunderstood as Islam. It haunts the popular Western imagination as an extreme faith that promotes authoritarian government, female oppression, civil war, and terrorism. Karen Armstrong’s short history offers a vital corrective to this narrow view. The distillation of years of thinking and writing about Islam, it demonstrates that the world’s fastest-growing faith is a much richer and more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest. Islam: A Short History begins with the flight of Muhammad and his family from Medina in the seventh century and the subsequent founding of the first mosques. It recounts the origins of the split between Shii and Sunni Muslims, and the emergence of Sufi mysticism; the spread of Islam throughout North Africa, the Levant, and Asia; the shattering effect on the Muslim world of the Crusades; the flowering of imperial Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries into the world’s greatest and most sophisticated power; and the origins and impact of revolutionary Islam. It concludes with an assessment of Islam today and its challenges” (Amazon).

Image result for the death of expertiseTom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2017): “People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism. As Tom Nichols shows in The Death of Expertise, this rejection of experts has occurred for many reasons, including the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement. Nichols has deeper concerns than the current rejection of expertise and learning, noting that when ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy-or in the worst case, a combination of both. The Death of Expertise is not only an exploration of a dangerous phenomenon but also a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age” (Amazon).

Image result for the great escape deatonAngus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Princeton University Press, 2013): “The world is a better place than it used to be. People are healthier, wealthier, and live longer. Yet the escapes from destitution by so many has left gaping inequalities between people and nations. In The Great Escape, Angus Deaton–one of the foremost experts on economic development and on poverty–tells the remarkable story of how, beginning 250 years ago, some parts of the world experienced sustained progress, opening up gaps and setting the stage for today’s disproportionately unequal world. Deaton takes an in-depth look at the historical and ongoing patterns behind the health and wealth of nations, and addresses what needs to be done to help those left behind. Deaton describes vast innovations and wrenching setbacks: the successes of antibiotics, pest control, vaccinations, and clean water on the one hand, and disastrous famines and the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the other. He examines the United States, a nation that has prospered but is today experiencing slower growth and increasing inequality. He also considers how economic growth in India and China has improved the lives of more than a billion people. Deaton argues that international aid has been ineffective and even harmful. He suggests alternative efforts–including reforming incentives to drug companies and lifting trade restrictions–that will allow the developing world to bring about its own Great Escape” (Amazon).

Image result for make it stickPeter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014): “To most of us, learning something “the hard way” implies wasted time and effort. Good teaching, we believe, should be creatively tailored to the different learning styles of students and should use strategies that make learning easier. Make It Stick turns fashionable ideas like these on their head. Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners. Memory plays a central role in our ability to carry out complex cognitive tasks, such as applying knowledge to problems never before encountered and drawing inferences from facts already known. New insights into how memory is encoded, consolidated, and later retrieved have led to a better understanding of how we learn. Grappling with the impediments that make learning challenging leads both to more complex mastery and better retention of what was learned. Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and durable learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another. Speaking most urgently to students, teachers, trainers, and athletes, Make It Stick will appeal to all those interested in the challenge of lifelong learning and self-improvement” (Amazon).

Image result for payoff arielyDan Ariely, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations (TED Books, 2016): “Every day we work hard to motivate ourselves, the people we live with, the people who work for and do business with us. In this way, much of what we do can be defined as being “motivators.” From the boardroom to the living room, our role as motivators is complex, and the more we try to motivate partners and children, friends and coworkers, the clearer it becomes that the story of motivation is far more intricate and fascinating than we’ve assumed. Payoff investigates the true nature of motivation, our partial blindness to the way it works, and how we can bridge this gap. With studies that range from Intel to a kindergarten classroom, Ariely digs deep to find the root of motivation—how it works and how we can use this knowledge to approach important choices in our own lives. Along the way, he explores intriguing questions such as: Can giving employees bonuses harm productivity? Why is trust so crucial for successful motivation? What are our misconceptions about how to value our work? How does your sense of your mortality impact your motivation?” (Amazon).

Image result for awakening compassion at workMonica C. Worline, Jane E. Dutton, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations (Berrett-Koehler, 2017): “Suffering in the workplace can rob our colleagues and coworkers of humanity, dignity, and motivation and is an unrecognized and costly drain on organizational potential. Marshaling evidence from two decades of field research, scholars and consultants Monica Worline and Jane Dutton show that alleviating such suffering confers measurable competitive advantages in areas like innovation, collaboration, service quality, and talent attraction and retention. They outline four steps for meeting suffering with compassion and show how to build a capacity for compassion into the structures and practices of an organization—because ultimately, as they write, “Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities”” (Amazon).

Image result for bourgeois virtuesDeirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (University of Chicago Press, 2006): “For a century and a half, the artists and intellectuals of Europe have scorned the bourgeoisie. And for a millennium and a half, the philosophers and theologians of Europe have scorned the marketplace. The bourgeois life, capitalism, Mencken’s “booboisie” and David Brooks’s “bobos”—all have been, and still are, framed as being responsible for everything from financial to moral poverty, world wars, and spiritual desuetude. Countering these centuries of assumptions and unexamined thinking is Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, a magnum opus that offers a radical view: capitalism is good for us. McCloskey’s sweeping, charming, and even humorous survey of ethical thought and economic realities—from Plato to Barbara Ehrenreich—overturns every assumption we have about being bourgeois. Can you be virtuous and bourgeois? Do markets improve ethics? Has capitalism made us better as well as richer? Yes, yes, and yes, argues McCloskey, who takes on centuries of capitalism’s critics with her erudition and sheer scope of knowledge. Applying a new tradition of “virtue ethics” to our lives in modern economies, she affirms American capitalism without ignoring its faults and celebrates the bourgeois lives we actually live, without supposing that they must be lives without ethical foundations” (Amazon).

Image result for mind and cosmosThomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012): “The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility” (Amazon).

Image result for democracy for realistsChristopher H. Achen, Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press, 2016): “Democracy for Realists assails the romantic folk-theory at the heart of contemporary thinking about democratic politics and government, and offers a provocative alternative view grounded in the actual human nature of democratic citizens. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence, including ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters―even those who are well informed and politically engaged―mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents’ control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly. Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters. Now with new analysis of the 2016 elections, Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government” (Amazon).

Image result for everybody lies sethSeth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (HarperCollins, 2017): “By the end of an average day in the early twenty-first century, human beings searching the internet will amass eight trillion gigabytes of data. This staggering amount of information—unprecedented in history—can tell us a great deal about who we are—the fears, desires, and behaviors that drive us, and the conscious and unconscious decisions we make. From the profound to the mundane, we can gain astonishing knowledge about the human psyche that less than twenty years ago, seemed unfathomable. Everybody Lies offers fascinating, surprising, and sometimes laugh-out-loud insights into everything from economics to ethics to sports to race to sex, gender and more, all drawn from the world of big data. What percentage of white voters didn’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s black? Does where you go to school effect how successful you are in life? Do parents secretly favor boy children over girls? Do violent films affect the crime rate? Can you beat the stock market? How regularly do we lie about our sex lives and who’s more self-conscious about sex, men or women Investigating these questions and a host of others, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz offers revelations that can help us understand ourselves and our lives better. Drawing on studies and experiments on how we really live and think, he demonstrates in fascinating and often funny ways the extent to which all the world is indeed a lab. With conclusions ranging from strange-but-true to thought-provoking to disturbing, he explores the power of this digital truth serum and its deeper potential—revealing biases deeply embedded within us, information we can use to change our culture, and the questions we’re afraid to ask that might be essential to our health—both emotional and physical. All of us are touched by big data everyday, and its influence is multiplying. Everybody Lies challenges us to think differently about how we see it and the world” (Amazon).

Image result for feeding the flock givensTerryl L. Givens, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis (Oxford University Press, 2017):Feeding the Flock, the second volume of Terryl L. Givens’s landmark study of the foundations of Mormon thought and practice, traces the essential contours of Mormon practice as it developed from Joseph Smith to the present. Despite the stigmatizing fascination with its social innovations (polygamy, communalism), its stark supernaturalism (angels, gold plates, and seer stones), and its most esoteric aspects (a New World Garden of Eden, sacred undergarments), as well as its long-standing outlier status among American Protestants, Givens reminds us that Mormonism remains the most enduring-and thriving-product of the nineteenth-century’s religious upheavals and innovations. Because Mormonism is founded on a radically unconventional cosmology, based on unusual doctrines of human nature, deity, and soteriology, a history of its development cannot use conventional theological categories. Givens has structured these volumes in a way that recognizes the implicit logic of Mormon thought. The first book, Wrestling the Angel, centered on the theoretical foundations of Mormon thought and doctrine regarding God, humans, and salvation. Feeding the Flock considers Mormon practice, the authority of the institution of the church and its priesthood, forms of worship, and the function and nature of spiritual gifts in the church’s history, revealing that Mormonism is still a tradition very much in the process of formation. At once original and provocative, engaging and learned, Givens offers the most sustained account of Mormon thought and practice yet written” (Amazon).

Image result for experience of god hartDavid Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013): “Despite the recent ferocious public debate about belief, the concept most central to the discussion—God—frequently remains vaguely and obscurely described. Are those engaged in these arguments even talking about the same thing? In a wide-ranging response to this confusion, esteemed scholar David Bentley Hart pursues a clarification of how the word “God” functions in the world’s great theistic faiths. Ranging broadly across Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, Hart explores how these great intellectual traditions treat humanity’s knowledge of the divine mysteries. Constructing his argument around three principal metaphysical “moments”—being, consciousness, and bliss—the author demonstrates an essential continuity between our fundamental experience of reality and the ultimate reality to which that experience inevitably points. Thoroughly dismissing such blatant misconceptions as the deists’ concept of God, as well as the fundamentalist view of the Bible as an objective historical record, Hart provides a welcome antidote to simplistic manifestoes. In doing so, he plumbs the depths of humanity’s experience of the world as powerful evidence for the reality of God and captures the beauty and poetry of traditional reflection upon the divine” (Amazon).

Image result for smarter faster betterCharles Duhigg, Smarter, Faster, Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity (Random House, 2016): “At the core of Smarter Faster Better are eight key productivity concepts—from motivation and goal setting to focus and decision making—that explain why some people and companies get so much done. Drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics—as well as the experiences of CEOs, educational reformers, four-star generals, FBI agents, airplane pilots, and Broadway songwriters—this painstakingly researched book explains that the most productive people, companies, and organizations don’t merely act differently. They view the world, and their choices, in profoundly different ways…What do these people have in common? They know that productivity relies on making certain choices. The way we frame our daily decisions; the big ambitions we embrace and the easy goals we ignore; the cultures we establish as leaders to drive innovation; the way we interact with data: These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive. In The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charles Duhigg explained why we do what we do. In Smarter Faster Better, he applies the same relentless curiosity, deep reporting, and rich storytelling to explain how we can improve at the things we do. It’s a groundbreaking exploration of the science of productivity, one that can help anyone learn to succeed with less stress and struggle, and to get more done without sacrificing what we care about most—to become smarter, faster, and better at everything we do” (Amazon).

Image result for where the conflict really liesAlvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011): “This book is a long-awaited major statement by a pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, on one of our biggest debates — the compatibility of science and religion. The last twenty years has seen a cottage industry of books on this divide, but with little consensus emerging. Plantinga, as a top philosopher but also a proponent of the rationality of religious belief, has a unique contribution to make. His theme in this short book is that the conflict between science and theistic religion is actually superficial, and that at a deeper level they are in concord. Plantinga examines where this conflict is supposed to exist — evolution, evolutionary psychology, analysis of scripture, scientific study of religion — as well as claims by Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Philip Kitcher that evolution and theistic belief cannot co-exist. Plantinga makes a case that their arguments are not only inconclusive but that the supposed conflicts themselves are superficial, due to the methodological naturalism used by science. On the other hand, science can actually offer support to theistic doctrines, and Plantinga uses the notion of biological and cosmological “fine-tuning” in support of this idea. Plantinga argues that we might think about arguments in science and religion in a new way — as different forms of discourse that try to persuade people to look at questions from a perspective such that they can see that something is true. In this way, there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise” (Amazon).

Image result for just babiesPaul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (Crown, 2013): “From John Locke to Sigmund Freud, philosophers and psychologists have long believed that we begin life as blank moral slates. Many of us take for granted that babies are born selfish and that it is the role of society—and especially parents—to transform them from little sociopaths into civilized beings. In Just Babies, Paul Bloom argues that humans are in fact hardwired with a sense of morality. Drawing on groundbreaking research at Yale, Bloom demonstrates that, even before they can speak or walk, babies judge the goodness and badness of others’ actions; feel empathy and compassion; act to soothe those in distress; and have a rudimentary sense of justice. Still, this innate morality is limited, sometimes tragically. We are naturally hostile to strangers, prone to parochialism and bigotry. Bringing together insights from psychology, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy, Bloom explores how we have come to surpass these limitations. Along the way, he examines the morality of chimpanzees, violent psychopaths, religious extremists, and Ivy League professors, and explores our often puzzling moral feelings about sex, politics, religion, and race. In his analysis of the morality of children and adults, Bloom rejects the fashionable view that our moral decisions are driven mainly by gut feelings and unconscious biases. Just as reason has driven our great scientific discoveries, he argues, it is reason and deliberation that makes possible our moral discoveries, such as the wrongness of slavery. Ultimately, it is through our imagination, our compassion, and our uniquely human capacity for rational thought that we can transcend the primitive sense of morality we were born with, becoming more than just babies” (Amazon).

Image result for braving the wildernessBrené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Random House, 2017): “Social scientist Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, has sparked a global conversation about the experiences that bring meaning to our lives—experiences of courage, vulnerability, love, belonging, shame, and empathy. In Braving the Wilderness, Brown redefines what it means to truly belong in an age of increased polarization. With her trademark mix of research, storytelling, and honesty, Brown will again change the cultural conversation while mapping a clear path to true belonging. Brown argues that we’re experiencing a spiritual crisis of disconnection, and introduces four practices of true belonging that challenge everything we believe about ourselves and each other. She writes, “True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism. But true belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity. It’s a personal commitment that we carry in our hearts.” Brown offers us the clarity and courage we need to find our way back to ourselves and to each other. And that path cuts right through the wilderness. Brown writes, “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand”” (Amazon).

Image result for joseph smith's polygamy laura halesBrian C. Hales, Laura H. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015): “In the last several years a wealth of information has been published on Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. For some who were already well aware of this aspect of early Mormon history, the availability of new research and discovered documents has been a wellspring of further insight and knowledge into this topic. For others who are learning of Joseph’s marriages to other women for the first time, these books and online publications (including the LDS Church’s recent Gospel Topics essays on the subject) can be both an information overload and a challenge to one’s faith. In this short volume, Brian C. Hales (author of the 3-volume Joseph Smith’s Polygamy set) and Laura H. Hales wade through the murky waters of history to help bring some clarity to this episode of Mormonism’s past, examining both the theological explanations of the practice and the accounts of those who experienced it first hand. As this episode of Mormon history involved more than just Joseph and his first wife Emma, this volume also includes short biographies of the 36 women who were married to the Prophet but whose stories of faith, struggle, and courage have been largely forgotten and ignored over time. While we may never fully understand the details and reasons surrounding this practice, Brian and Laura Hales provide readers with an accessible, forthright, and faithful look into this challenging topic so that we can at least come toward a better understanding” (Amazon).

A Pragmatic Zion

Ephraim Moses Lilien, Zion, 1903. (Public Domain)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

I forgot that—after the Sunday afternoon session—the October 1975 General Conference had one more session to go: the welfare session. And this, my friends, is the most quintessentially Mormon thing ever.

Back in the day, my father said in a PBS interview:

One of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular, is the collapse of sacred distance. Joseph insistently refused to recognize the distinctness of those categories that were typical in traditional Christianity, the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual.

That stubborn refusal to see any distinction between spiritual and the physical, the practical and the ideal, the holy and the mundane, is one of the most distinctive attributes of Mormon faith, and also one of my favorite. We’re relentlessly effective at finding the sacred in basically everything. We’re as universalistic in our aspirations to find holiness everywhere as we are in our plans to save all mankind.

And so it is that we’ve got an entire session of General Conference dedicated to such mundane concerns as how to pick a career, the importance of budgeting, and the necessity of having enough food storage on hand. And yet at the same time, there’s the stubborn insistence that working out the nuts and bolts of practical self-sufficiency is a stepping stone towards reaching Zion.

I love it in part because it’s just deliciously paradoxical, and paradoxes are fun. But that’s at best an adolescent appreciation. There’s nothing deep or lasting in that regard.

What matters to me more is this: the only kind of Zion that could ever be realized—in practice—is one that is fundamentally pragmatic in conception. If anyone could ever build the kin of society we believe a Zion society to be—one with no distinction between rich and poor, and where the people are united in heart and mind—it would be practical people, willing to take every mundane step necessary in pursuit of their heavenly aspiration.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Reawakenings, Rituals, and Routines

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

A constant theme in several talks of the Saturday morning session of the April 1975 General Conference was spiritual transformation as a daily practice. For example, Sterling W. Sills borrowed from a previous talk to describe our rebirth(s) or “human reawakenings” (emphasis mine) Notice the plural. He notes that “no one is limited to merely two births [i.e., physical birth and baptism]…we can be born again as many times as we please. And each time we can be born better.” In one of my favorite quotes from his talk, he says,

In 1932, Walter Pitkin wrote a great book entitled Life Begins at Forty. But that is ridiculous. Life begins when we begin, and we may begin a new and better life every morning.

Someone once asked Phillips Brooks when he was born, and he said that it was one Sunday afternoon about 3:30 when he was 25 years of age, just after he had finished reading a great book. Just think how many thrilling, exciting rebirths we can have as we study the holy scriptures and as we fill our minds with the word of the Lord and get the spirit of righteousness into our hearts.

Image result for get born again gif

These multiple rebirths are meant to eventually lead us to “some future Easter morning” when “we may be born again into [God’s] presence to live with him in the celestial kingdom throughout eternity.”

The idea that rebirth is not a single event can also be found in Robert D. Hales’ talk:  “I have learned from Joseph Fielding Smith, and have talked to young people, about the law of consecration. It is not one particular event; it is a lifetime, day by day, in which we all strive to do our best that we might live honorable lives, that we might live the best we can in the service of others…” Consecration is found in the scriptures, but its covenantal form takes place within the temple. I’ll return to this momentarily.

Mark E. Peterson provides a slightly different angle to Sabbath day worship:

What can we do to protect ourselves under these hazardous circumstances? How can we better help our young people to remain unspotted from the world? The Lord gives us the answer, and says that it can be done by sincerely observing the Sabbath day. Most people have never thought of it in this way, but note the words of the Lord in this regard: “That thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world”—note these words—“that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day.” (D&C 59:9.)

In short, “we are commanded to change our usual routine and go to church and worship God on the Sabbath.” I think the comments on consecration (and, by implication, the temple endowment) and Sabbath day observance are important. These practices interrupt our daily routine–interrupt our participation in what philosopher James K.A. Smith calls “secular liturgies”–and reorient our hearts toward the kingdom of God. Our daily “cultural practices and rituals” are, according to Smith, “liturgies…We need to recognize that these practices are not neutral or benign, but rather intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people–to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kings and patriotic citizens of rival kingdoms.” Mormon philosopher JamesE. Faulconer says of the temple endowment,

Those participating in Mormon temple worship do not merely hear the story told in the ritual or watch someone ritually reenact it. They take part in the reenactment, moving from place to place, performing specified actions as part of the story. Ritual participants memorialize Adam and Eve and the founding events of the Christian human narrative by reenacting the story of Creation, Garden, Fall, and life in the world…Having ritually become Adam or Eve, each celebrant finds himself or herself identified in a symbolic order given by the Father and mediated by the Son, an ordering of not just individual lives, but of the cosmos and the community, as directed by and toward God…The celebrant acts out the story and, returning to the temple to do proxy work for the dead, acts it out again and again, doing the ritual for others and becoming more and more ingrained in its celebration. In doing so he lives and relives the founding story that makes sense of human life. The celebrant ties the memorialized past of Adam and Eve to his present, making that present into something new through the memorialized link…The Mormon commemoration of Adam and Eve serves a critical function similar to the Jewish celebration of the Sabbath or of Passover: it recalls to its participants events in history that define who they are and how they should be in the world, and it does so by putting those events into a narrative of self–and communal–identity that is ordered by God. Remembering the past of the Creation and the Fall serves to assure that celebrants will live int he world in the ways required by the order of Creation and Fall. Taking part in the temple ritual, the celebrant becomes part of the divine narrative, no longer merely an individual cut off from God.

Sabbath observance can offer similar reorientation. As I’ve written elsewhere,

There are two major strands of thought found in the scriptures regarding the reasons for the Sabbath. The first largely dominates the books of Genesis and Exodus and hearkens back to the Creation. As we read in Exodus, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:8,11; cf. Gen. 2:2; Mosiah 13:16). Scholars have recognized for some time that the sequence and literary structure of Genesis 1 parallels that of ancient Near Eastern temple building, thus depicting the Creation as a cosmic temple (for fruitful scripture study, try comparing Genesis 1 to the building and dedication of the Tabernacle or Solomon’s temple). Within this context, God resting makes much more sense. “Deity,” explains Wheaton professor John Walton, “rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for [in the ancient Near East]. We might even say that this is what a temple is—a place for divine rest.” With Genesis 1 as a temple text, it is worth noting that the Sabbath is the first mention of “holiness” in scripture and was later put on par with the temple itself: the Sabbath became a sanctuary or temple in time, while the temple became a Sabbath in space. This is why the temple and the Sabbath could be profaned in similar ways. In summary, the first interpretation of the Sabbath entails Creation, divine rest, and holiness.

The second train of thought is found mostly in Deuteronomy and the later prophets. The Deuteronomist version of the commandment reads, “Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it…And remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out of thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12,15). This follows an admonition in which the entire Israelite household is told to cease from labor, including servants, foreign guests, and even animals (vs. 14). The reminder and celebration is that of liberation and the Sabbath itself acts “as an affirmation of human freedom, justice, and equality” by providing rest for all living beings. Therefore, the second interpretation is about remembrance, deliverance, and (given its connection to other practices such as the sabbatical years and Jubilee) social justice.

These rituals and practices help shape our habits and desires. As we participate in them, our daily choices and routines will change as well. Multiple rebirths will occur as the natural man slowly dies. Then we will become “saint[s] through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19).

“Things Won Are Done; Joy’s Soul Lies In Doing”

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes,

Richard Davidson, the psychologist who brought us affective style and the approach circuits of the front left cortex, writes about two types of positive affect. The first he calls “pre-goal attainment positive affect,” which is the pleasurable feeling you get as you make progress toward a goal. The second is called “post-goal attainment positive affect,” which Davidson says arises once you have achieved something you want. You experience this latter feeling as contentment, as a short-lived feeling of release when the left prefrontal cortex reduces its activity after a goal has been achieved. In other words, when it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination. Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. Th e final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool. People sometimes do just this. They work hard at a task and expect some special euphoria at the end. But when they achieve success and find only moderate and short-lived pleasure, they ask (as the singer Peggy Lee once did): Is that all there is? They devalue their accomplishments as a striving after wind. We can call this “the progress principle”: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing” (pgs. 83-84).

I was reminded of this while reading John H. Vandenberg’s October 1972 talk. In it he explains that the Church “extends the invitation to all who so desire to partake of the power of the gospel, which will lift an individual out of oblivion and, in so doing, will give a feeling of satisfaction and happiness not to be found elsewhere. It provides the sources of control for self-improvement, a stable character, and a truly successful life.” In Vandenberg’s eyes, the gospel is about–to borrow Haidt’s term–progress: “It is highly doubtful that there is even one soul upon the earth, regardless of station or age, who does not have ample room for personal growth and improvement. Quoting the words of one of the Lord’s prophets: “If we are no better tomorrow than we are today, we are not very useful.” (David O. McKay, Pathways to Happiness [Bookcraft, 1957], p. 292.)” This fits with Joseph Smith’s original vision of the divine:

Being versus Becoming, Process versus Perfection, Creation, Time, and Eternity…The Great Chain of Being–unchallenged paradigm of a static, orderly, and harmonious universe–was buried beneath the emergent model of chaos, flux, radical transformation, and conflict…If there was one prevailing sense in which Joseph Smith was a child of his age, it was in the avidity with which he reflected this dynamic, fundamentally Romantic view of the world, an orientation that suffused his cosmology, his human anthropology, and even his doctrine of deity.

For Vandenberg, the concept of repentance is “the very essence of change; it embodies the powerful principle of obedience to God’s law and discipline of self. When applied to our lives, it provides a cleansing joy which surges through us.” This doesn’t say, “And when you finally get to the end, you’ll feel joy.” But the constant state of improvement–of “small wins“–brings happiness:

In these principles we find the unfailing power to change. As to the effective use of our leisure time, we have, in the gospel, unnumbered opportunities. As one acquires knowledge of the gospel principles and pursues his course, he can successfully apply those principles to his individual circumstances, whether his position be one of great or meager possessions; whether it be early in life, during his economic production period, or in retirement. The gospel is meant to temper life and to bring it into true balance and fruition…The individual power is attested to in this scripture: “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.” (D&C 58:27–28.)

Mormons need to remember that it’s about the journey: not the achievement of some static perfection.

Honesty: A Principle of Salvation

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

I kept thinking of the above research as I was reading through Mark E. Peterson’s October 1971 talk on honesty. What is so troubling about Dan Ariely’s research is the fact that most people are dishonest in small, incremental ways, yet still think of themselves as good, honest people. As Peterson states, “Honesty is a principle of salvation in the kingdom of God. Without it there can be no salvation. Just as no man or woman can be saved without baptism, so no one can be saved without honesty. As we cannot advance in the kingdom of heaven without a resurrection, so we cannot move into celestial realms without honesty. As God condemns immorality, so he denounces hypocrisy, which is one of the worst forms of dishonesty.” The list he provides next is thought-provoking:

  • The lie of the drug peddler that tempts a child to indulge.
  • The lie of the seducer that persuades a girl to surrender her virtue
  • The lie of the shyster that traps his victim in the fraudulent deal.
  • The lie of the tax evader that puts him behind bars.
  • The lie of the student that turns him into a cheat at school.
  • The lie of the child—and too often also of the parent—that creates the generation gap.
  • The lie of the shoddy workman that hides a faulty repair.
  • The lie of a husband or wife that leads to infidelity.
  • The lie of the embezzler that makes him falsify his books.
  • The desire to lie and cheat that turns a mother into a shoplifter.
  • The child who assists her into a potential criminal.
  • The lie on the lips of the neighborhood gossip that brings character assassination to many innocent victims.
  • The dishonest one who seeks to take advantage of or to humiliate or to deliberately injure a fellow human being.
  • It is dishonesty in a householder that persuades him to cheat a little newsboy out of his collections for delivering his newspapers.
  • The lie of a clergyman teaching premarital sex as a type of trial marriage that persuades a girl to lose her virtue.
  • The lie of the hypocrite who berates his wife and belittles his children and is a beast in the home that persuades him to assume a pious role on Sunday and sing in the choir and partake of the sacred emblems of the Lord’s supper.
  • The lie of the infatuated girl who deceives her parents as she enters a life of sin with a boy who would only drag her down.

Honesty is an act of vulnerability, humility, and love. According to Peterson, “Dishonesty is directly related to selfishness, which is its origin and source. Selfishness is at the root of nearly all the disorders that afflict us, and man’s inhumanity to man continues to make countless thousands mourn. If all mankind were honest, we could have heaven here on earth. We would have no need for armies or navies, nor even a policeman in the smallest community, for there would be no crime, no invasion of other people’s rights, no violence of one person against another. There would be no grounds for divorce, nor would we have errant husbands or unfaithful wives. Conflict between children and parents would disappear, and juvenile delinquency would come to an end.” Think about the list above. While there is greed and enmity involved, there is also shame and disconnection. How many cheat in school or work out of fear of not being enough? How many gossip with others in an attempt to create connection, no matter how counterfeit? How many crimes are committed in hopes of gaining acceptance, through status and the like? The sad thing is that dishonesty erodes trust and trust is vital to deep, lasting relationships. This is why no one is saved without honesty because no one is saved in isolation. Dishonesty is a form of betrayal. Psychologist John Gottman, one of the foremost experts on relationships and marriage, has emphasized the importance of trust in relationships. He uses the acronym ATTUNE:

  • Awareness of your partner’s emotion;
  • Turning toward the emotion;
  • Tolerance of two different viewpoints;
  • trying to Understand your partner;
  • Non-defensive responses to your partner;
  • and responding with Empathy.

He shares a personal story to demonstrate what he means:

John Gottman

But how do you build trust? What I’ve found through research is that trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner. Let me give you an example of that from my own relationship. One night, I really wanted to finish a mystery novel. I thought I knew who the killer was, but I was anxious to find out. At one point in the night, I put the novel on my bedside and walked into the bathroom.As I passed the mirror, I saw my wife’s face in the reflection, and she looked sad, brushing her hair. There was a sliding door moment. I had a choice. I could sneak out of the bathroom and think, “I don’t want to deal with her sadness tonight, I want to read my novel.” But instead, because I’m a sensitive researcher of relationships, I decided to go into the bathroom. I took the brush from her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” And she told me why she was sad. Now, at that moment, I was building trust; I was there for her. I was connecting with her rather than choosing to think only about what I wanted. These are the moments, we’ve discovered, that build trust. One such moment is not that important, but if you’re always choosing to turn away, then trust erodes in a relationship—very gradually, very slowly…By contrast, the atom of betrayal is not just turning away—not just turning away from my wife’s sadness in that moment—but doing what Caryl Rusbult called a “CL-ALT,” which stands for “comparison level for alternatives.” What that means is I not only turn away from her sadness, but I think to myself, “I can do better. Who needs this crap? I’m always dealing with her negativity. I can do better.” Once you start thinking that you can do better, then you begin a cascade of not committing to the relationship; of trashing your partner instead of cherishing your partner; of building resentment rather than gratitude; of lowering your investment in the relationship; of not sacrificing for the relationship; and of escalating conflicts.

To ignore his wife’s sadness and avert his eyes would not have been a lack of awareness, but an act of dishonesty. It is within these small moments that we lie the most and thus miss out on the chance for connection. To love and reach out is one of the most vulnerable and honest things you can do. “In the most emphatic and urgent meaning of the word,” write Terryl and Fiona Givens, “love reveals truth. It does not create the impression of truth; love does not merely endow something with a subjective truth–love is the only position or emotional disposition from which we become fully aware of the already present reality of the other person as more than a mere object among other objects in a crowded universe. Love alone reveals the full reality and value of the other person.” Peterson notes that Christ “knows that the sinful life is the costly and miserable life, and that wickedness never was happiness. He invites us to bear a lighter burden, one of joy, relief, and deep satisfaction[.]”

And this joy, relief, and satisfaction comes through honest, vulnerable, loving relationships.

Here are the rest of the blog posts for the General Conference Odyssey this week.

The Slow Hunch: Monthly Recap

As all three readers of The Slow Hunch probably know, I have once again failed to link to its latest posts here at Difficult Run. Alas, this is probably one of many reasons that my personal blog tends to be rather lonely.

Therefore, instead of linking to every single TSH post individually whenever it goes live, I will do monthly recaps with links to all the latest write-ups. My posts tend to be short and it seems a bit much (both for readers and my memory, apparently) to dedicate a DR post to a single TSH one. So, without further ado, here’s what you missed at The Slow Hunch this last month or so:

  • Feeling Good About Work – Features a TED talk by behavioral economist Dan Ariely on how meaning, creativity, and challenge can motivate us at work. I briefly connect it to the Mormon concept of eternal progression.
  • 2015 Faith & Knowledge Conference – The abstract for my upcoming presentation at the Faith & Knowledge Conference at the University of Virginia, entitled “”Labour…Is Their Religion”: Toward a Mormon Theology of Work.”
  • Reimagining Business – Features a TED talk by business professor Raj Sisodia on why business is good, ethical, noble, and heroic and how conscious capitalism can keep it that way.
  • Restoring the Mundane: Expanding Joseph’s Project – Borrowing from Terryl Givens’ latest book Wrestling the Angel, I look at Joseph Smith’s eclectic borrowing and reorienting of various traditions and beliefs and expand it to include everyday activities and resources.
  • “…Working With, For, and Through Other People” – Features an interview with Wharton professor Adam Grant on creating a “giver” culture within organizations. I round it out with a quote from Hugh Nibley on consecration and charity.
  • Jonathan Haidt on Dynamism With Decency – Features a Zurich.Minds presentation by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about capitalism and business ethics. His comments fit comfortably into my version of a Mormon theology of work.
  • Wellbeing: The Dignity of Work – Looks at Gallup research on the impact one’s career (or lack of) has on overall well-being. Long-term unemployment can be surprisingly detrimental. Plus, you get a performance by Irish folk singer Christy Moore.
  • Blessed Are the Laborers? – Draws on Arthur Brooks’ research on work and happiness, eschatological hopes of the Old Testament, and Jesus’ beatitudes to suggest that work has an integral role in the age to come. Plus, Incubus rocking out.

Let the browsing begin.

DR Editors Pick Their Best Reads of 2014

989 DR Editor Fave Books COVER

I thought it would be fun to have the DR Editors pick their best reads from 2014. I’m glad I did! Looking through the lists of books and the reviews was really interesting, and it definitely shows what a diverse set of readers we have here at Difficult Run. Without further ado, here are the lists they sent in the order in which they were received.


Monica emailed me to say “I think I only read 5 or so books in 2014 anyway, and none of them were really remarkable to me. :-/.” Fair enough, and let us all wish Monica better luck in picking books to read in 2015!

Robin Givens

1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling gives a voice to all lady craziness.  If Tina Fey is my best friend because Liz Lemon is my spirit animal, and if Amy Poehler is my best friend because she’s all girl power, then Mindy Kaling is my best friend because she is a girly-girl (not me, but I appreciate), anxious (me), school nerd (me).  This book definitely has a particular audience which is 30-ish females who dare to be non-academic (even if some of them still get straight A’s).  Mindy Kaling is a comedian whose voice carries over entirely to the book, something I haven’t found in other comedian memoirs. Also, can Mindy Kaling PLEASE write a YA vampire romance series?!

I guess I find “Jack and Diane” a little disgusting…I wish there was a song called “Nguyen and Ari,” a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at the Princeton Review. They help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses, and then after months of studying, and mountains of flashcards, they kiss chastely upon hearing the news that they both got into their top college choices.”

2. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) by Fannie Flagg

I love Southern fiction and I love crazy people, and this book is all about crazy Southern people.  This is the kind of quirky Southern fiction that will make you think “I have to stop reading Southern fiction because nothing can ever possibly compare.”  There are deep sadnesses, great triumphs, secret collaborations, hilarious anecdotes, kooky characters, ridiculous names, inspiring loves and most of all loyal friendships. Love.

“By the way, Boots died and Opal says she hopes you’re satisfied.
…Dot Weems…”

3. State of Wonder: A Novel by Patchett, Ann Reprint (2012) Paperback by Ann Patchett

This is a great read for any female in graduate school (but if you’re not in graduate school, it’s still great).  Not only is it a mystery/adventure beach read (with a hint of science fiction), but it really explores the mentor-student relationship in all of its (possible) horror.  The story is a modern, feminine retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  If you hated that book in high school, you will still like this book.  The most interesting things I found with Patchett’s writing are her ability to convey the emotion of a scene through dialogue, and her great use of flashback intertwined with the current moment.   I could not put this book down!!

Walker Wright

1. The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith by Terryl & Fiona Givens

The Givenses’ most recent work is, as Adam Miller put it, “a nearly perfect book.” Many books have been written on the nature of faith and doubt, but none (that I’m aware of) tackle it from a purely Mormon perspective. The LDS faith produces a number of somewhat unique angles and situations for doubt due to its history and theological claims. These include but are not limited to modern prophetic authority and the temptation of hero worship, the Church’s doctrines in relation to other traditions and sources of truth, and the actual role the LDS Church as an organization plays in the world today and in God’s eternal plan. The Givenses provide deep insights, workable paradigms, and new language by which to articulate the messiness of lived religion. In a culture and tradition that paradoxically teaches both progressive learning and religious certainty, this book provides a method of faithful doubting. Questions, as noted recently by President Ucthdorf, led to the Restoration. I hope that this book will begin to erode the cultural stigma toward doubt and help reestablish a culture of consistent seeking.

2. Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact by Neylan McBaine

Neylan McBaine’s book is both important and timely, offering wisdom and insight for both LDS leaders and lay members. Neylan’s ability to carefully navigate the rather heated and sensitive topic of gender roles within the LDS Church is awe-inspiring. She avoids painting women as victims or overusing buzzwords like “patriarchy,” while still pointedly addressing the sexism that is sometimes (often unintentionally) bred in Mormon culture. Her choice of stories—several from non-American settings–paints a more vivid, diverse picture of the LDS Church and the men and women within it. Neylan’s empathic take on both traditional and more critical LDS views is an excellent example of bridge building and readers will likely be influenced to adopt a more charitable approach to those they disagree with. She largely avoids the theological entanglements of gender essentialism and the like, instead relying on business-oriented studies and material to provide a realistic framework in which actual improvements can be made. The end product is inspiring, thoughtful, and often paradigm-shifting. Every LDS member, as well as outsiders looking in, would benefit from reading it.

3. Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Paperback) – Common by David E. Bokovoy

This book is one that, surprisingly, both LDS and non-LDS alike can benefit from. The book is written as less of an argument (even if the evidence presented within it could be used to bolster an impressive one), but as an invitation. The first five chapters focus on the Documentary Hypothesis, breaking it down in a highly accessible way. The final five focus specifically on Latter-day Saints and their holy books (i.e. the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Book of Mormon), providing readers with an informative paradigm by which to approach scripture, revelation, and “translation.” A secularist can find value in Bokovoy’s description of the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham as modern pseudepigrapha, while an apologist will find plenty of material for ancient origins. While there is room for debate regarding David’s approach to restoration scriptures (I tend to take an eclectic approach, seeing it as a mix of pseudepigrapha, midrash, targum, history, and iconotropy), that’s the point: to think critically about these texts. Bokovoy does not offer his view as the final word, but as a possible paradigm. And it is a valuable one at that. David and Greg Kofford Books have done Latter-day Saints a great service with this publication. I hope to see its influence in future Sunday School, Institute, and Seminary classes Church wide.

Honorable Mention:

Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller

For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope by Joseph M. Spencer

Allen Hansen

1. Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Jewish Lives)  by Yehuda Mirsky

I greatly admire the Rav Kook, arguably among the most original and radical religious thinkers of all time, a man who tried to find the spark of holiness in everyone, even in his opponents. Yehuda Mirsky’s new biography traces Kook’s life from his beginnings in the traditional, conservative world of Jewish Eastern Europe to his move to Palestine in 1904 where he attempted to build bridges between that world and the young, free-thinking Zionists.  Then came the horrors of the First World War, which Kook saw in starkly religious terms. The rest of the book is taken up with Kook’s return to Palestine under the British, where he became chief rabbi. Mirsky shows how Kook could be theologically bold and psychologically incisive, yet remained politically naïve. At his best, Rabbi Kook could bridge the traditional and modern worlds in a unique, visionary way, and this biography is an excellent introduction to his pivotal impact on Judaism and the Middle East.

2. I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Bluesby Stephen Calt

Skip James is my favorite bluesman. He was also a pretty appalling individual. What particularly fascinates me is how similar blues culture was to rap culture in many ways. Pimping, getting rich quick, clubbing, and violence, it is all there in the life of Skip James, so he feels surprisingly modern. Stephen Calt was one of the few people whom James considered a friend, and he shared with him many (contradictory) details of his life. Calt traces James’ life from the early 20th century to his rediscovery by white fans in the 1960s. He does so critically, so there is no getting around the fact that despite being gifted, James was also proud, paranoid, and unloving. Calt really has little patience for myth or romanticism. Calt also accepts that not all blues music was good, and shows James’ limitations as a musician. There is also a wealth of historical detail about the south, its dialects, culture and religion. Ultimately, the book is the tragic portrait of an intelligent, undeniably talented man who at the end of his life had nothing to be proud of except performing a song better than Cream’s cover version.

3. Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (Jewish Encounters) Daniel Gordis

Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, was nothing if not controversial. Begin led the armed insurgency against the British in 1940s Palestine, and was considered by them terrorist No. 1. Begin was publicly denounced by Einstein, and constantly vilified by Ben-Gurion. As prime minister, Begin launched the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and initiated the First Lebanese War.  Yet he also signed the peace treaty with Egypt, and he took in Vietnamese refugees when no one else did. Daniel Gordis does a superb job of putting Begin in context, highlighting how Begin’s profound attachment to his Jewish identity shaped his life and political vision. Gordis brings nuances to the moral dilemmas that Begin faced, and it is hard to walk away from this biography without gaining appreciation for Begin as a person. He made tough decisions, but did not throw anyone under the bus if things went wrong. Given his reputation, it is surprising to learn that he attempted to minimize bloodshed, and was determined to avoid a civil war among the various Jewish factions. Despite his unyielding devotion to the Jewish cause, he also believed in a universal humanism. Gordis’ biography makes it hard to accept the common wisdom which holds that religion and nationalism inevitably have a negative impact on politics. The truth is always far messier and complex.

Honourable Mention:

Terror Out of Zion: The Fight for Israeli Independence by J. Bowyer Bell

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris

Bryan Maack

1. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller

I think people are rightfully calling Tim Keller the new C.S. Lewis. The pastor of a New York Presbyterian Church, he writes in a simple and short yet deeply insightful manner. His book clocks in at 250 pages, but they read easily, and every page has value. His book is broken down into two main parts. First, he covers the arguments against Christianity such as there can’t be one true religion, how a good God could allow suffering, and how science has disproved Christianity. Keller then follows up with reasons for believing in Christianity, such as the famous argument from desire, the clues to God in the human mind and the natural world, the meaning of sin, and much more. He uses citations amply, which provide both credibility and additional reading. Overall, a great book which I can’t do justice to in a short review. Go read it yourself!

2. The Shadow of His Wings: The True Story of Fr. Gereon Goldmann, OFM by Gereon Goldmann

Gereon Goldmann recalls his harrowing years up to and during WW2 as a Catholic priest-in-training who was drafted into the SS as a medic before he could finish his theological training. His autobiography paints a picture of one man, trusting in God, trying to stay alive and faithful to his beliefs through the trials of World War 2. The book reads like ‘based on a true story’ and yet *is* a true story. Goldmann defies the SS straight to their face. He meets with Pope Pius XII during the war and become a priest despite lacking years of training. He carries the Eucharist throughout the war, ministering to the fearful and dying, and at one point wades across a river above his head with only the Eucharist above water in his hand, hoping nearby British sentries don’t notice the mysterious Eucharist container moving across the river. He ends up in a French prison camp in the middle of the desert after the war with a bunch of Nazis who refuse to give up, and through faithful dedication overthrows their de facto ownership of the camp despite attempts on his life. Goldmann survives all of these ordeals and ultimately becomes a missionary to Japan! I truly have found few biographies more inspiring than Father Goldmann’s.

3. The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ (A Liguori Classic) by Saint Alphonsus Liguori

Saint Liguori set out in the mid 1700s to write a book for the poor and uneducated of Italy about the love of Jesus Christ. I love this book precisely because it is written for the simple and uneducated. I want to be taught as one would teach a peasant, starting with the simplest concepts, because I have found often that in simplicity there is the genuine love of Christ so often lacking in complex treatises. Saint Liguori pulls liberally from scripture and from other Catholic saints to teach us how much Jesus has done for us, and in return how we can best love Jesus. “For my part, I know of no other perfection than that of loving God with all the heart, because without love all the other virtues are nothing but a pile of stones.”

Nathaniel Givens

I read a lot of books in 2014 (more than 60), so picking just the top three is going to be tricky. Here we go.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

I put off reading The Righteous Mind for a while not because I wasn’t sure if it would be good or not, but because I was sure that it would be good. I was already familiar from interviews, articles, and videos with both Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and its basic political implications. I thought it was fascinating and compelling theory, and I assumed that this book–like so many popular non-fiction books–would be a couple of hundred pages of fluff around a core idea that could be expressed in 70 pages or less. When I actually read the book, however, I was shocked and surprised to see how wrong I’d been.

There’s a lot more going on in this book than Moral Foundations Theory. There is MFT, of course, but it’s very interesting to see Jonathan Haidt put it in its historical context by writing of his own coming-of-age (as a researcher) narrative. Then, going far beyond MFT, there’s just a lot of really, really excellent discussion of the basics of human nature. There are two core ideas, and both of them are starkly post-post-modern (as N. T. Wright would say). The first critiques the model of human nature that pictures us as more or less rational and more or less monolithic. Instead, Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant (our emotional and psychological behaviors) with a rider perched on top (our rational mind) where the rider has very limited control over the elephant and acts more as a PR firm to justify what the elephant does rather than an expert consultant to guide its behavior. The second critiques the idea of human individualism, pointing out that we are (as Haidt metaphorically puts it) 90% chimp and 10% honeybee. We have a “hive switch” that, when activated by various group religious, cultural, or military behaviors, turns a bunch of individuals into a single, cohesive whole. Taken together, these two ideas constitute one of the most important attacks on the core Enlightenment philosophical tenets that have survived into modernity, although that observation goes beyond what Haidt himself has to say. The book is fascinating, compelling, and deeply relevant to our world today.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This is one of those books that has had a tremendous amount of positive buzz, and I was really happy that it lived up to all the good rumors I’d heard. I classify this as a work of genuinely literary sci-fi, along with books like Never Let Me Go or The Handmaid’s Tale: they come from outside the stable of authors traditionally considered to be genre writers in the sci-fi tradition, but they are books that absolutely couldn’t exist without the concepts and tropes popularized by sci-fi genre writers. They are sort of the best of both worlds: more emphasis on prose and characterization than you sometimes get from books shelved in the sci-fi section, but with that genuine spark of inquisitiveness and analysis that is the hallmark of “the literature of ideas.” In particular, The Road is a literary take on the post-apocalyptic sub-genre that simultaneously uses the apocalypse as a backdrop for an introspective father/son story (sort of a mirror image coming-of-age story, where the boy comes of age almost without the father realizing what is happening) but at the same time treats the backdrop seriously and as more than a mere prop. This is why, I think, it can satisfy both hard core sci-fi fans and also those who have never really gotten into the genre. I will add that I couldn’t fully enjoy the book as I read it through the first time because ever since I’ve had kids of my own I can’t really deal with traumatic things happening to children in fiction, and I wasn’t sure how dark this book was going to get. I won’t give any spoilers other than to say the ending wasn’t what I expected, but it worked fantastically. I want to reread this one again some day.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

On one level, this is a book-length exposition of McWhorter’s theory of where the English language came from, written for a layperson to understand. But with this book, the journey is at least as valuable as the destination. By the time he got to his big reveal at the end, I had completely forgotten that that was the point of the book. I was simply too fascinated by his explanation of the linguistic history of English, especially as it related to the political and cultural history of Europe. But then when he did pull it all together in the end, I was excited by his theory, too. It gave the book the feel of an exciting techno-mystery where there’s some ancient, unexplained clue that–once it is unraveled–gives us fresh insight into the past. I’m definitely a huge fan of McWhorter, and I have to stress that if you’re not listening to the audiobook versions of his books (which he narrates himself), you’re missing out. With linguistics as with no other subject, there is really no substitute for the spoken word.

Honorable Mention:

Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson

What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

Mother Night: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut

My First Piece for Meridian’s Expand

Thought Cloud

Not long ago I was asked to participate in a new initiative at Meridian Magazine: creating a new section (called “Expand”) The site launched about two weeks ago with a mission statement from Ralph Hancock, who is leading the project. The image above gives a pretty succinct distillation of what Expand hopes to do: provide a space for Mormon thinkers to host “civil discussion that engages the great moral questions, ideological movements, and contending intellectual frameworks of our day.”


The next two articles consisted of a pair of interviews/dialogues (part 1, part 2) between Hancock and Terryl Givens about Givens’ newest book:Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity.

Earlier today the fourth article was posted, and this is one that I wrote: Maybe the Prophets Know What They’re Doing. In it, I manage to dredge up most of the controversies and conundrums to hit the Bloggernaccle over the past couple of years. Except Mitt Romney. I didn’t mention him. But other than that, it’s probably in this article.

I don’t know how frequently I’ll be contributing posts there, but there are already lots more great articles in the pipeline, and I’m excited to see how the project grows and develops over time. I hope you’ll all check it out.

My Top 10 Most Influential Books

2014-09-08 Influential Books COVER
Yeah, it’s from the movie. Get over it. :-)

A friend of mine (in real life and on Facebook) issued me one of those Facebook challenges, in this case to list the top 10 books that had been most influential on me. I usually ignore those kinds of things, but I knew this one would be a ton of fun, so I decided to do it and to make a blog post out of it.

First, I have to say that as a writer there’s just no way I can limit my selection to only 10. To play within the rules, however, I picked the top 10 and then put the rest in an “honorable mention” category. Secondly, I thought it was fun to divide the books into three categories: childhood (up through the end of middle school), high school, and adulthood. I’m going to list the books in the order I read them to the best of my memory.

And yeah, I get that it’s a little unusual to claim that books I’ve read in the last few years are among the most influential in my life. How can I really be sure? Of course I can’t. There’s some guess-work involved, but the idea that I’m going to be significantly changing as a person no matter how old I am is important to me. Maybe it’s more of an aspiration than a fact, but I’d like to think I’ll never know what the most influential books will be, ’cause it could be the one I’m reading today, or even one that I’m going to read 10 or 20 or more years in the future. So, with those notes, let’s get started.


The Old Testament (1986)

2014-09-08 HeadphonesNo, I wasn’t reading the Old Testament in 1986, which was before I started school. I couldn’t even read. But I was listening to them on audiobook. My family was very poor back in those days, and a hand-me down collection of Old Testament audio cassettes was one of the few things with which I could entertain myself. We had a pair of headphones with a really, really long extension cord so even before I could read I would just sit quietly playing with my toy cars and listening to stories about God telling Abraham to sacrifice his soon Isaac. Take that, Baby Einstein.

Truth be told, I’m sure it was probably a sanitized version of the Old Testament. I can’t remember any details. It did make enough of an impression that, one day at dinner, I solemnly told my dad not to marry any Canaanite women. Sure, I knew he wasn’t exactly in the marriage market, but it seemed really important so I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

I can’t rightly say exactly what influence all this fire-and-brimstone had on a young and impressionable Nathaniel. I think most of the violence went right over my head. What stuck with me, more than anything else, was just this overriding sense that words matter. That the things written down in books could be a big deal. Because I had picture books and learn-to-read books and all that kind of stuff, but I also had the Old Testament. I didn’t really understand it, but I could tell this was a weighty text. So I knew, right at the start, that books could be more than cute and frivolous.

Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire by Victor Appleton (1989)

2014-09-08 Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear FireMost of the books I read as a young kid were mysteries. I read dozens and dozens of Hardy Boys and several British series like the Fabulous Five. But the books that stand out the most in my memory are from the Tom Swift, Jr. series.  The first influence is obvious: Tom Swift, Jr. launched my life-long love of science fiction. After thousands of pages of contemporary mystery, the breathtaking scope of these novels filled me with wonder. They also had a really, really strange prose style, however, like “Tom Swifties.” This refers to the way the authors (writing under the name Victor Appleton) went to great lengths to avoid using the plain word “said” in dialogue. Either other phrases were used, or “said” was dressed up in some way: “We must hurry,” said Tom Swiftly. Get it? ‘Cause his name is “Swift”? I could get that, even when I was 8 years old. So in addition to introducing me to sci-fi, the books also taught me that writing wasn’t just a method of conveying meaning. It was itself something you could play with.

The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher – 1992

These books blew my young mind. Post-apocalyptic, alien-resistance, teenage freedom fighters? Yes, please. Think the orignial Red Dawn meets The War of the Worlds and you’ve got a good notion of the plot and tone of these stories.

2014-09-08 The TripodsThere are still so many scenes from these books that I can vividly recall today. Here’s just one: a city that would give criminals sentenced to death a horse and set them free. If they managed to outrun the tripods (giant, three-legged robots controlled by the aliens) then good for them. But, as the young protagonists watched in horror, even the bravest and most skilled horsemen were going to be caught–impaled on one of the metal tentacles of the towering tripods–and left to die in the fields in front of the town. There were so many awesome themes in this book, and such great sci-fi world-building, but what hit hardest of all was the final sacrifice of one of the main characters in the closing pages of the last book. It was the first time I cried reading a book, and so I learned something new. I learned how deeply a book could make you feel.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien – 1993

2014-09-08 The ArgonathI can still remember exactly where I was when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time: in my family’s pop-up camper in a campground in north-eastern Tennessee called Warrior’s Path. And, as I’ve recently written about, the scene that stood out the most to me at the time was the relatively inconsequential passage where Frodo and The Fellowship sail past the Argonath, only scant pages before Boromir’s betrayal and the breaking of the Fellowship. I don’t know why my memory of The Two Towers is so much stronger than my memories of The Fellowship of the Ring or The Return of the King, but it is. There was the Argonath, and then of course there was the sound of Boromir’s horn, defiant to the end, as he died a hero despite his faults. I read The Lord of the Rings several more times over the years, and my dad even read the entire trilogy out loud to me when I was a teenager just because it was something fun for us to do together. So LotR influenced me in a lot of ways but, already an aspiring writer by that time, Tolkien mostly taught me about the sacred art of world-building. When a writer really pours himself into creating his world, he creates something real. I know I haven’t lived up to that in my own writing, but it’s always been my guiding star, and I still hope to be a worthy disciple of sub-creation.

Honorable Mention

I read a lot of books as a kid. Here are some others that I can’t bear to not mention at all:

  • Redwall by Brian Jacques (1991)
    I really loved this children’s classic, and I even met Brian Jacques when he came to a public library for a book signing. I still have my signed copy, even though it’s a falling-apart paperback at this point. Meeting an author in the flesh was a big moment for me, even though I failed to prevent two bullies from butting in front of my sister in the book signing line. Mr. Jacques scolded them and sent them to the back of the line and then gave me a look to let me know I’d failed as a big brother.
  • The Deptford Mice Trilogy by Robin Jarvis (1991)
    These were the darkest books I’d read to that date, but also incredibly engrossing. I’ve thought about the limits of darkness in fiction ever since then.
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams (1992)
    It’s impossible to tell someone who hasn’t read Watership Down how good a book about rabbits can be, and–I was surprised to learn–if you tell them that there’s a Simon and Garfunkel song based on the book it doesn’t help.
  • The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1993)
    Definitely one of the most immersive and defining series of my childhood. Also kicked off a Celtic-fantasy binge that lasted for a couple of years.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1994)
    I”m only fully appreciating L’Engle’s gifts as an adult. The older I get, the more I think it is female authors–L’Engle, Bujold, Cherryh, and Le Guin–who are the truest masters of sci-fi.

High School

 Dune by Frank Herbert (1995)

2014-09-08 dune__atreides-smallI have never, ever forgotten the lesson of the Gom Jabbar: we human beings are not rational creatures. Our rational minds contend with our animal natures and, more often than not, it is the animal that wins. In recent years this has become well-known with all kind of research on cognitive biases and with Jonathan Haidt’s example of the elephant and the rider, but the truth of it hit me hardest when I read the test that young Paul Atreides faced: one hand in a box that created the sensation of unbearable pain while a needle was poised at his neck, ready to deliver a fatal toxin if he withdrew his hand from the box. Frank Herbert’s masterpiece was also the defining example of the lesson that there is a place for religion-as a personal motivation, as a social force, as a part of the setting–in fiction.

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (1996)

2014-09-08 John HarrisI’ve seen Ender’s Game make the list for a lot of people, and there is no doubt that I liked Ender’s Game more as a kid. I reread it several times, and I didn’t reread Speaker for the Dead until after I was 30. But it has always been Orson Scott Card’s horrific inversion of the crucifixion that has haunted me, delving into the most painful and the most tender aspects of Christianity in general and of Mormonism in particular. Speaker for the Dead is not a fun book, but it is a masterpiece, and it showed me another way in which religion can have a place in fiction: as spiritual meditation, as an exercise of strained faith, as worship.

The Book of Mormon (1997)

I sort of roll my eyes when people put works of scripture on these lists. Yes, we get it, you’re religious. And here I am with two. That’s ’cause I decided my reaction was just me being too cool for my own God. Which isn’t cool. And the reality is that the Book of Mormon has probably been the single most influential book of my life. I certainly hope it has, in any case. I may have read the Book of Mormon before 1997, but this is the first read-through that I can remember. It’s the read through when I actually decided that I had to know, for myself, if it was true. If I was going to be a Mormon. So I did the Mormon thing: I read the Book of Mormon and then I prayed to know if it was true. I didn’t get an immediate answer or an obvious answer. But I got something, and it was enough to keep my going. My faith has changed a lot over the years, and other things have become more important to my faith than the Book of Mormon, but that was the summer where I set off on my own faith journey, trying to find spiritual independence from my parents for the first time. I’m lucky and grateful that the independence didn’t entail a separation. We don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue, but I’m proud of the work they both do, and deeply grateful that we share a common faith. It’s a faith we couldn’t share if it weren’t for the fact that each of us is willing to abandon it if we don’t believe it to be true.

Honorable Mention

  • The Kestrel by Lloyd  Alexander (1995)
    The second in Lloyd Alexander’s series that started with The Beggar Queen, this book was a stark departure from his usual light-hearted fare. The anti-hero has become trend to the point of cliche in entertainment these days, but this was my first experience with anything like it, and it made me think. It was my introduction to ethics and political philosophy in fiction, I suppose.
  • The Damned Trilogy by Alan Dean Foster (1996)
    If Tom Swift was my first experience with sci-fi, this trilogy has become my personal paragon of sci-fi. It’s fun, exciting space opera that tries to ask big questions and tell a real story about real people. I’ve read more sophisticated and better-written fiction since then, but this will always have a special place in my heart as my re-introduction to the genre and perhaps my first introduction to space opera.
  • Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (1997)
    Douglas Adams’ Hithchiker’s Guide series is funny, but the kind of hilarious writing will always be Terry Pratchett for me. Small Gods was the first book I read by him, and is still the funniest. I laughed so hard that I physically couldn’t hold the book several times. Not all of his works are that funny, and I’m not sure how the humor will hold up now that I’m older, but I’ll also mention two other greats from this time period: Soul Music and Reaper Man. I need to give them a fresh look soon.
  • Nobody’s Son by Sean Stewart (1999)
    I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this book or seen it in any list, but of all the honorable mentions, this one is the closest to making the cut. I’ve seen lots of “subverting the fairy tale” stories since, but none that impressed me the way this one did. It’s a story about what happens after the plucky farm boy slays the evil what’s-it and wins the princess’ hand. How dreams that come true stop being dreams, and what we can do in the after math. I need to re-read this one, too.


Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling (2007)

2014-09-08 Harry PotterDoes this one really need an explanation? My mum started reading the books to the family when I was still in high school. Then I went on a mission, came home, got married, and the last book came out. Harry Potter spans the end of my childhood and the beginning of my life as an adult. I have no idea how many times I’ve listened to Jim Dale’s rendition of the books on audio, but it’s a lot. I’ve learned an incredible amount about writing and about world-building, but more than anything else, J. K. Rowling reminded me of the visceral emotional reality of reading in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a young child. These books are truly magical.

Changes by Jim Butcher (2010)

2014-09-08 Harry DresdenThis book represents the entire Dresden Files series. As anyone who follows me on Facebook knows, I love this series with a passion that might not be entirely healthy. I don’t think they are the best-written books. The obsession with sex and with over-explaining both grate, but despite this the books speak to me on a deep, visceral level about the things that matter most. “He died doing the right thing,” is the inscription an evil vampire puts on the protagonists tombstone, and it sort of defines the entire series. That and little old cliches like loyalty, and friendship, and forgiveness, and trust, and family. This book has, without doubt, the best battle scene I’ve ever read. It also has, without doubt, the most tragic death scene I’ve ever read. One is fun, the other left me in tears.

On Killing by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman (2013)

2014-09-08 On KillingThis is the first non-literary book to make it on my list. In reality, however, I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction in the last few years. From various Great Courses to really great non-fiction books that you’ll see in my Honorable Mention section, I have come to enjoy great non-fiction almost as much as I love great fiction. But, of all the non-fiction I’ve read, this has been the one that’s had the greatest impact on me for it’s presentation of some deep and important elements of human psychology. You can see the kinds of thoughts it inspired me in a Times And Seasons post I wrote called: Mormonism and Embodiment: Learning from Killing.

Honorable Mention

  • By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl Givens (2002)
    I read my father’s study of the Book of Mormon and its role in Mormon theology and culture while I was still on my mission. I was in the office, so I was able to set aside my real duties for a day and finish the entire book in basically one setting. My dad is my hero, and this book is one reason why.
  • The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (2003)
    I read Graham Greene’s incredible novel as required reading in an undergrad class at the University of Richmond. It had a profound impact on the way I think about theology and the Mormon Church which, in many ways, bears close resemblance to the Roman Catholic Church.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (2009)
    The ending of this book really made me think about my role as a believer and as an artist (hopefully).
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2011)
    This was a great example of the fusion of sci-fi and literature.
  • Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (2014)
    I got around to Philip K. Dick a little late in life, considering how much sci-fi I read, and it blew my mind. If there was just one writer I could be like, he would be very high on the list of potential paragons.
  • The Upside of Down by Megan McArdle (in progress)
    I’ve only been listening to the audio version of Megan McArdle’s book for the last few days, but I like it that much. Seriously. It’s giving me hope after a long, long series of failures in my life that–whether or not I find success-the failures themselves don’t mean I’m a failure. And might be worth something to me in and of themselves.

So there you’ve got it: the most influential books on me thus far in my life, as best I can reckon. Feel free to share you own list in the comments!