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Ralph C. Hancock
Tuesday, March 13 2012

Confessions of Joanna or Towards a Mormonism Lite

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BOM Girl COVER-final

Joanna Brooks is the author of the new book The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories of an American Faith.

Part I

According to her own self-description, “Joanna Brooks is a national voice on Mormon life and politics and an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture.  The author of The Book of Mormon Girl:  Stories from an American Faith, she is a senior correspondent for the on-line magazine ReligionDispatches.org and has been named one of50 Politicos to Watchby Politico.com. A twenty-year veteran of the Mormon feminist movement, she was the subject of an extensive CNN.com profile: “Crossing the Plains and Kicking up Dirt: A New Mormon Pioneer” at CNN.com (February 5, 2012) and of the acclaimed American Public Media show On Being’sMormon Demystifiedshow (October 20, 2011).

She has also been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, BBC’s Americana, Interfaith Voices, and Radio West, as well as on PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Al-Jazeera English and Estonian national television.  Her writing has appeared in the Washington PostHuffington Post, Killing the Buddha, and Michigan Quarterly Review and she has been utilized as a source on contemporary Mormonism by the New York Times, Reuters, Salt Lake Tribune, Associated PressWashington Post, Salon, New America Media, Pittsburgh Gazette-Post, The Tennessean, Headline News Network, Fox News, the Boston Globe, Newsweekand the Deseret News.

Brooks is also writing about Mormonism and public life for the Future of Religion in America book series (Columbia University Press) and writes a regular column at Askmormongirl.com…”

Professor Brooks is thus an increasingly influential writer with a flair for publicity whom many in the media – and, she hopes, many Latter-day Saints – are looking to as an attractively liberal and “open-minded” alternative to the conservatism of ordinary Mormons. She thus proposes a beguiling vision of Mormonism as reconciled to a liberal secular culture, an increasingly prominent vision that readers of Meridian Magazine should be aware of.

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Like St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great models of the intimate personal confession as a genre for communicating an understanding of life’s meaning, Joanna Brooks seeks to indicate a path towards illumination and authenticity through a narration of her own life. This life is a decidedly, distinctly Mormon life, beginning with a thoroughly, almost archetypal Mormon childhood; but, it is finally, to be sure, a Mormon life with a difference.

This is no ordinary Mormon life – not your mother’s (nor indeed Joanna’s mother’s) Mormon life, but what is proposed as a new and exciting way of being Mormon. Since Ms. Brooks appeals to our sensibilities and seeks to open up new practical possibilities through the form of a personal narrative that is often quite intimate, we are obliged to address her ideas or her vision by addressing her personal story.

Just as Rousseau employed a creative presentation of his own intimate and checkered life to convert hearts and minds to his idea of humanity’s natural goodness, so Joanna Brooks uses what appears to be a quite unguarded autobiography to make the case for a new Mormonism, a faith unhindered by any orthodoxy and fully open to an ethic of liberalism. Thus the present reflection, in the form of a book review, necessarily touches on personal matters that normally would be considered irrelevant in intellectual exchange.

It is true that Sister Brooks does not ask all to follow what she considers her challenging path; she is content to accept the more conservative beliefs and practices of more ordinary Mormons, or is at least reconciled to the probability that many will continue to cling to more traditional ways. But any who have more progressive ears to hear are clearly invited to break through the barriers of tradition and orthodoxy and breathe the exhilarating air of the wide-open vistas of a post-orthodox Mormonism. To evaluate this invitation we are obliged to evaluate this life, or what the author tells us of it.

Joanna Brooks is in many ways a Mormon Garrison Keillor. Just as the gifted raconteur of “Prairie Home Companion” fame (National Public Radio) charms us with his more or less plausible tales of Lake Wobegone, Minnesota, she draws us into scenes from her early life as a Mormon Girl in Orange County, California, with vivid depictions of quaint and curious manners and practices. As with Keillor, there seems to be much affection in the voice of the narrator, but also considerable ironic distance from the attitudes and worldview of the subjects. But unlike Keillor, whose rhetorical genius consists in never allowing the irony to overbalance the affection and thus to show its face as disdain (except in edgy political obiter dicta separate from his Wobegone tales), our Mormon Girl’s childhood scenes are eventually subjected to withering ideological critique from the standpoint of Brave New Mormon Woman.   Any charm the childhood stories might have held risks being spoiled when the author makes them weapons or fodder in her political-theological project.

(This First Part of our review will focus on Joanna Brooks’ depiction of her quintessentially Mormon childhood; a consideration of her rebellion as a BYU student, her years in “exile,” and her more recent and ambiguous return to the fold will follow.)

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Many of Joanna Brooks’ early memories will be recognized as very familiar to those of us who were raised Mormon in the American West in the latter part of the twentieth century. She touchingly relates her parents’ teaching her about the plan of salvation, about the Prophet Joseph’s first vision, and about the closeness of pioneer ancestors.


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