seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.
Doctrine and Covenants 88:118
We both love reading and believe reading should do more than just confirm what we already believe but it should challenge, expand, stretch, and teach. Seeking out “the best books” is a challenge of a lifetime and will involve scripture, LDS books, books from other faiths, faith affirming books, faith challenging books, non-religious books, fiction, non-fiction, and more. In short, any book that creates greater intelligence in us whether about God, the world, others, or ourselves will be good and useful for developing faith.
Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince
Along with “Rough Stone Rolling” (Bushman) I think this book is a ‘must read’ for Mormons and non-Mormons who desire to understand Mormonism in context.
The book is organized in a way that stratifies McKay’s life by topic. As you read, you make several passes through McKay’s life and gain an understanding of his growth and changing perspective, his challenges, his failures, and his triumphs as one of Mormonism’s most successful leaders.
Of particular note, the chapter chronicling McKay’s interactions with Mormonism’s tragic history with people of African descent read like an exciting detective story even though I knew its tragic ending. The authors’ treatment of that chapter of Mormonism’s past was honest, unflinching, and fair.
I also appreciated the authors’ great, up-front acknowledgement that Clare Middlemiss (McKay’s personal secretary) is who made this book possible. Mormonism is forever indebted to her for the work she did in chronicling McKay’s life in unprecedented (and likely still unmatched) detail for any Mormon prophet.
Like Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling” this book, happily, moves past merely hagiographic treatment of Mormonism’s leaders and history and seeks to get at its kernel of truth. The authors point out the effects of doing so:
“People have often asked me, ‘Has this project been faith promoting or faith eroding for you?’ My consistent response—and I speak for Bob as well—has been that it has been enormously faith promoting. This came as no surprise to me, for I believe strongly that the only thing that can truly promote faith (rather than shielding people from reality) is the truth… We realize that truth can be jolting, particularly to those whose lives have been shielded from it. There will doubtless be some who after sampling a few pages will choose not to go along for the whole ride. We wish them no ill and trust that they will continue to pursue their own faith journeys by their own rules.”
For me reading “The Rise of Modern Mormonism” “for the whole ride” was an absolute treat (I averaged 15 pgs a day). And while it deconstructed some myths I may have assumed, it was, in balance, very faith promoting.
Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam Miller
Much like his other books, Adam Miller reframes familiar topics in a way the reveals their enduring power. He goes through several high-level topics: agency, work, sin, faith, scripture, prayer, history, science, hunger, sex, temples, and eternal life and weaves a bluntly honest, but soaringly hopeful picture of these things in a format and language accessible to youth. But don’t let the title limit the audience. His questions, framings, honest observations, and faith can be a balm of healing to the hearts and minds of adults and youth alike. It occurs to me that this book could be used to frame an array of Family Home Evenings where these questions, observations, and faith can be discussed together with parents and children.
Simply Jesus by N. T. Wright
In “Simply Jesus”, NT Wright expertly immerses the reader into the time of Jesus to create the setting and framework necessary to understand Jesus the way his first disciples understood him and, more importantly, to get at understanding how Jesus understood his own work and mission. Much of the book is spent painting this historical canvas which constantly must be cleared of our modern way of thinking. In doing so, Wright isn’t seeking to say Jesus is irrelevant to modernism or that modernism is unworthy of Jesus but by looking at Jesus through first century eyes we can more clearly discern who Jesus was, what he was teaching, and why. Wright then pulls the reader back into modern times and asks the same questions Jesus and his disciples were asking in their day but applies it to ours.
The book does a good job showing how Jesus resists the boxes we tend to try to place him in and challenges the reader to think more robustly about the mission and meaning of Jesus’ teachings and the work of building the kingdom of heaven.
I sometimes describe this book as being able to do for LDS understanding of Jesus what CS Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” did for many LDS people’s understanding of Christianity.
The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns
Peter Enns creates a strong case for changing the paradigm with which we read the Bible. His book ‘The Bible Tells Me So’ is written in a colloquial voice (which can feel a bit informal for the topic) but which works because his points are well researched. Several times I stopped to independently check to make sure his quick summations weren’t off-base and found my spot checks consistently verified from other sources.
The main point is that we need to step away from trying to fit the Bible’s various authors into one harmonious, historical, rule book and embrace the fact that there are a variety of sometimes contradicting and non-historical voices. As we embrace that we can come to realize God is letting mankind tell their own, messy story of how they understand and struggle to know God. This makes us better able to read the Bible on its own terms and see how our struggles in faith are welcome as we strive to trust God.
Understanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy
Grant Hardy’s book achieves what it sets out to do: “to demonstrate a mode of literary analysis by which all readers, regardless of their prior religious commitments or lack thereof, can discuss the book in useful and accurate ways.” I appreciate his bracketing historical claims and instead focusing on the literary richness that is there. Grant acknowledges the issues the book has (anachronisms, contradictions, failures, and biases) and frames them not as problems to be solved but as part of the vibrancy and humanity of the text. In doing so he can help readers for whom a literal approach doesn’t inspire them to look beyond literalism and dive into the language and style of scripture. And when we do so we can see how God’s voice emerges out of the text (even with its flaws) and it can act as scripture in the true sense of the word.
When I read this I read it back to back with Peter Enns “The Bible Tells Me So”. I found their messages complimentary in articulating methods whereby readers can respect and draw strength from scriptural tradition. Peter Enns talks a lot about how scriptural authors appropriate and re-cast past scripture into new lights. I think the Book of Mormon fits that tradition quite well and can sit right along with the complex and unruly Bible as another voice (or “Testament” if you will) of God.
Future Mormon by Adam Miller
Future Mormon is a treat to read. Adam Miller packs it with an array of perspectives and questions that will wonderfully unsettle and challenge your worldview. Throughout it the author forms a picture of a worldview where Plato’s Idealism is challenged as a thoroughgoing materialism is proposed. In this material world grace, truth, creation, fall, salvation, covenant, authority, etc. are reframed. But as he does so he avoids the nihilistic pitfalls that a materialist view often defaults to. Adam Miller affirms grace (more radically so that often a Platonic worldview often does), gives weight to truth (albeit in a much more dynamic way), shows an ongoing and eternal creation, ties the fall and salvation to creation, situates covenant to our relationships with the material world and all others in it, and casts authority as a material organization that utilizes these forces to unite agents (conscious and unconscious).
I would have liked to see how the author approaches something like Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems in this thoroughgoing materialism. How do the fundamental limits of our logic and axioms in their ability to reveal truth play into this world? Does this material world welcome something like the Incompleteness Theorem as part of its nature? Or does the Incompleteness Theorem end up bringing back Plato’s Idealism by showing the limits of this material world?
Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman
Richard Bushman’s ‘Rough Stone Rolling’ is a paradigm-shifting biography of Joseph Smith and his role in forming and shaping Mormonism. Bushman writes from a self-admitted faithful Mormon perspective, but his research and coverage of Joseph Smith is unflinching. As a result, his work is able to challenge myths which have cropped up around Joseph Smith which, although they may be faith promoting, also can also sow seeds of doubt when the myth is suddenly broken. Bushman guides the reader through a history which relies less on myth and more on robust history but in a way that believing Mormons (myself included) can find renewed (albeit reshaped) faith in what it is that God worked through Joseph Smith. In my opinion, it sets the stage to a whole new generation of renewed scholarship and religious narrative around Joseph Smith and Mormonism that can benefit both Mormons and non-Mormons.
Evolution of the Word by Marcus J. Borg
This is a great resource which takes the books of the New Testament and re-orders them chronologically based on current understanding of when they were written. Borg writes wonderful introductions to each book describing scholarly understanding on authorship, historical context, and major themes - much like other study Bibles. He is very open with his decisions on ordering, where scholarly consensus is found or isn’t found on dates/topics, and justifies his ordering. He discusses how Christianity evolved over time, how historical forces influenced it, and how early Christ-communities developed early Christian understanding as these books were written. He is fair in discussing how when modern scholarship questions authorship that it does not undermine the books as genuine and valuable artifacts of early Christian thought. Borg includes summary essays/notes about this ordering as well as what it can demonstrate about Christianity which are useful for quick reference.
Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan by Adam Miller
In “grace is Not God’s Backup Plan”, Adam Miller does a strenuous, modern translation (or remix) of the book of Romans. His translation is ecumenical, broadly accessible, and does a great job capturing the essence of Paul which, in some Bible translations, can be hard to parse. From an LDS perspective, I sometimes describe this book as doing for our understanding of grace today what Steven Robinson’s “Believing Christ” did for it in its day. Adam Miller echoes Paul’s teaching that grace is fundamental and pre-supposed by God and it is our sin that is a rejection of this grace rather than grace being seen as a stop-gap measure minimally applied.
Nothing New Under the Sun by Adam Miller
Much like his paraphrase of Romans in his book “Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan”, Adam Miller gives a similar treatment to an often ignored book in the Bible: Ecclesiastes. Perhaps because it describes existential parts of life we’d rather not think about, Ecclesiastes is underutilized in Christian/LDS discourse. And it is precisely because it covers existentially troubling realities that it is needed more in discourse. Adam Miller gives strength to the voice of this text: modernizing it in an ecumenical way. A faith than can grapple with these troubling realities will find itself more robust and able to thrive in life.
Mormon Scientist by Henry J. Eyring
A great biography of one of Mormonism’s greatest thinkers, Mormon Scientist covers the life of Henry Eyring (father to LDS apostle Henry B. Eyring). It covers his career as a renowned scientist who worked in the field of chemistry and developed models describing chemical reaction rates (see Eyring Equation). Besides being an accomplished scientist, Henry Eyring was also a man of faith. He spoke openly about the need for religion to understand science and for science to understand religion. He brokered perspectives to bring these two worlds into harmony w/o compromising the essence of religion’s commitment to faith or science’s commitment to evidence-based theories. He often acted as an educator to LDS leaders during the decades of scientific revolution which many (including some LDS leaders) thought was a threat to faith. This book does a wonderful job sketching these and many other aspects of Henry Eyring’s life.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) Study Bible
This is an incredible, illuminating, ecumenical Bible study guide. Each book has a essay which prefaces it written by a leading expert in that part of scripture which covers topics of authorship, historical setting, style/theme analysis, and reading guide. It’s translation is top-notch, correcting many translation errors found in older translations (e.g. King James Version). While authors sometimes challenge long-held norms, they are balanced in also noting the value the texts contain in a new context without those norms. The verse-by-verse commentary is also excellent noting important linguistic context, religious themes, and cross references.
In addition to book-by-book, verse-by-verse guides, there are also many general essays on Biblical topics ranging from interpretations, and cultural contexts, tables and timelines, concordance, and maps.
The Jewish Study Bible - Second Edition
The Jewish Study Bible (Second Edition, Oxford University Press) is an essential guide to understanding the Old Testament on Jewish terms vs. merely through a Christian lens. I studied using this as a companion to the New Oxford Annotated Bible above and found they were in concordance almost always. In addition to similar book essays covering authorship, historical context, style/theme guides and verse by verse context, this Jewish study Bible provides Jewish religious, cultural, and worship context to books and verses.
One of the greatest parts of this book is it’s various, insightful essays at the end of the book which cover topics such as Jewish interpretation, Biblical ideas and institutions, the Bible in Jewish life, Backgrounds for reading, and a primer on the Jewish Bible in the New Testament - each of these high-level topics have several essays within them (over 400 pages of these essays).
While Christianity is different than Judaism, its roots are Judaism. Christianity understood outside a Jewish context will lead to our misunderstanding it. This guide helps Christians/LDS people to understand the Jewish roots to their faith.