This is the first in a new series on our blog that will look at books either written by Mormon authors, or books that tangentially or directly intersect Mormonism. It is a review of Joanna Brooks’ “The Book of Mormon Girl.” This post is unique, not only because it is the maiden-voyage of a new blog series
for us, but because it was written by my wife’s oldest sister Tamera LeBeau. Tamera left the LDS church about 20 years ago, and although she and her husband will still come to important family religious events, she no longer is a practicing member. We chose her to write the review for “The Book of Mormon Girl” because we thought she would provide a unique insider/outsider’s view of Joanna Brooks’ memoir. Enjoy.
To purchase a copy of The Book of Mormon Girl, click here.
If you are interested in listening to in depth interviews with Joanna Brooks, here are two differnt programs:
Two different interviews with John Dehlin on “Mormon Stories” podcast:
NPR interview on Krisa Tippett’s program “On Being”:
A Review of Joanna Brooks’ “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From An American Faith”
By Tamera LeBeau
Writing “The Book of Mormon Girl” was an act of courage — courage because some non-Mormons would likely be put off by Joanna Brooks’ descriptions of Mormon life; courage because some Mormons, including some in positions of authority, would likely be angered by the author’s unorthodox approach. However, throughout her descriptions of caffeine-free smiles, canned-soup casseroles, minivans full of children, garages full of food storage, and bonnet-clad pioneer ancestors, the author brings forward her love of the Mormon culture in which she was raised and of the God she was taught to know.
I found myself relating to many of the stories in this book. Being only two years older than the author, I also grew up watching the Donny and Marie show, going to church girls camp (albeit only once due to my still-present loathing of life sans indoor plumbing), and attending special youth weeks at BYU to hear talks replete with object lessons on keeping one’s purity. Like the author, I lived wondering in every large crowd of Mormon youth whether my “special someone” was there waiting with unconditional love and understanding.
I, too, attended BYU and met some sadly judgmental people but also some thoughtful, intelligent, and inspiring people. Being a geography major, I was safely off in the corners of the Kimball Tower hearing surprisingly liberal professors speak of the importance of environmental responsibility and of taking care of this planet over which God had given us stewardship. Maybe I was a couple years too early since I graduated and left BYU in August of 1990, but unlike the author I did not have the opportunity to meet the LDS feminists she encountered there. If I had, I may have had more hope for melding the ideals I came to hold dear in my adulthood with those I was taught as a child.
In the words of the author, “How do we react when we discover at the core of faith a knot of contradictions?” When faced with these contradictions I, like many others including the author for a time, simply walked away; simple, however, not being an accurate descriptor because what could ever be simple about doing something that feels like it is ripping your heart to shreds, threatening your relationship with your family, and perhaps even damning your soul? As the author described, “I felt as if someone had thrown my heart to the concrete and dropped a cinder block on it.” The author’s bishop in her California singles ward shared some sage advice with her at a difficult time in her life: “Sometimes we just have to do and seek God in the process.” And in the words of the author, sometimes we have to give way and say, “Yes, God, do with me what you will.”
When reading this book, I felt the heartbreak of the author as she shared her disappointment of the LDS Church’s heavy involvement in California’s Yes on 8 campaign. How could rights for my gay and lesbian friends threaten heterosexual marriage? If Elvis preacher wedding chapels in Vegas and the Kardashians hadn’t already killed it, I think it was safe. It was an act of courage for the many Mormons who just quietly voted according to their conscience despite what was said from the pulpit. It was an act beyond courage that the author took this to the next level, volunteering her time and her talents in the No on 8 campaign although she had just recently returned to active membership.
The author is now raising two children with her husband, whose religious practice she describes as “a combination of Judaism, Buddhism, and ESPN.” (I loved that! In my household you are free to worship the God of your choosing, but cheering for the Los Angeles Dodgers over the San Francisco Giants is neigh unto treason.) In what the author calls “a great experiment” their daughters learn about Shabbat and Seder, wards and sacrament; moreover, what I think she is instilling in her daughters above and beyond any particular dogma is an unbending faith. The author kept her faith through times when she felt so threatened that she felt the need to keep a file of newspaper clippings, articles with which to defend herself if she found herself in a Church court with her membership hanging in the balance. Despite her disappointments and trials, she is teaching her daughters that love trumps fear. “All are alike unto God; God is a Mother and a Father; Mormon women matter.”
I am proud to say that I come from a long line of strong women, some of them raised in the LDS faith and some of them not. Through my 11 nieces, I am seeing that strong line continue. I sincerely hope that my nieces will not have to choose between their strength as women, compassion for people who live and love differently than they do, and respect for the truths found in other faiths; and the strength of the Mormon heritage in which they were raised. Through authors like Joanna Brooks who have the courage to tell their unorthodox Mormon stories perhaps they won’t.
About our guest blogger, Tamera LeBeau
Tamera LeBeau has a Master Degree in Library and Information Sciences from Florida State University and a BS in Geography from BYU. She currently works as the Assistant Library Director for the Livermore Public Library in Livermore, California.
I loved your review of “The Book of Mormon Girl” I believe it was an act of courage on your part to walk away when faced with that “knot of condradictions”, not knowing how your family would react. Not only do you come from a line of strong women, you are one!
Patty! You made my cold, black heart melt! What a wonderful thing to say to your daughter.
Jerilyn, I agree! Thanks, Mom! 🙂
Great review. I have been meaning to go and purchase this book…I think the time is now. I’m excited to see what else is inside the book
Thanks! I would be interested to hear your thoughts once you’ve had a chance to read it.
Great post Tammy. I have historically held the view that with the LDS church, one is either an active participating member, or out of the church. I am starting to see now that the Church needs to have room for those who are wrestling with their faith and testimony, and wrestling with the ‘status quo’ of the organization. Though its the gospel of Jesus Christ, the organization is run by people who aren’t infallible, and attended by individuals who are each on their own personal spiritual journey. Though I have not read the book yet, it appears that Joanna Brooks is trying to help us understand that one can be an active participating member of the church while also questioning certain long held policies of the Church. Looking forward to what appears to be a good read!
Thanks for your comment, Jenny! You are correct, although personally I would take it even one step further. I think some aspects of what members may typically define as the gospel of Jesus Christ are in part just long held policies which are a product of their time and place. The question is this — after you look beyond all of the policies, what are you left with? I would posit that you are left with something very basic and beautiful, something inclusive and fairly universal. Joanna Brooks held dear the culture of Mormonism in which to express her faith of this truth; but I think beyond the culture, she always held the truths to be of utmost importance. For her, that sometimes meant following her faith against the current culture of the LDS Church, such as with the California Prop 8 issue. Yes, I would definitely recommend this read as a thought provoking approach to modern faith and religion.
Thanks for you input. I recently heard the author on NPR discussing politics and Mormons. I’ve been wondering about her book. I may have to see if my library can get a copy for me. 🙂
Yes, support your local library! 🙂 I read a copy I had checked out from my library, but I liked it so much that now I’m planning to purchase my own copy so I can have it to refer back to.
Tamera, I no longer believe for many reasons: history, Prop 8, boring meetings, arrogance, exclusivity, etc.
Thanks for your comment. We each have to decide for ourselves what holds meaning for us and what makes our life richer. In my opinion, although I know this is not the common opinion for everyone, there are many paths to finding meaning in life. Ultimately, I think it’s important that we each live true to ourselves while in turn respecting the fact that others may find meaning through a different path. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. A variety of opinions and viewpoints makes things interesting!
Tamera – loved your review, very thoughtful and heartfelt. Best of all, very real. Thanks for your post!
You guys have a great blog. Thanks for giving people this forum for thoughtful and at times unorthodox discussion!
On the Facebook posting of this review, someone quipped that had a “male believer” written the review, it would be quite different. I take issue with such a statement and I offer the following as my response: “As a male believer, I loved Joanna’s book and I’ve told her as much. She is an articulate, intelligent voice of what it means to be a free-thinking, pro-human rights, pro-gay, liberal Mormon feminist intellectual in the 21st century. She hits on something very, very real in her book that I identify with and I felt ennobled while reading it.”
Robert J. Hudson, PhD
BYU French & Italian
Thank you for your cogent comments. It’s wonderful that you were able to relate to her journey even though you are not necessarily experiencing the same journey yourself. On a related note, I’d love to hear from others who have read the book as well. What did you think? What parts of the story were you able to relate to? What aspects of the story did you not relate to? Do you think Joanna is doing a positive thing by pushing some of these boundaries, or has she gone too far in stretching the meaning of Mormonism? What did you think of her dream of a more welcoming Mormonism where “everyone has a place at the table”? Is this just unrealistic idealism, or is this something that Mormonism should strive for? Let’s talk!
I have been having a “Joanna” few months and today was an especially “Joanna” day. I am very active in my ward. I am the Young Men’s President and give many hours of service to the organization; often sacrificing time from my family and things that I like to do because I think I have something to offer my teenage boys. I remember the Young Men’s Presidents I had as a teenager; especially a man named Fred Murray. He sacrificed a lot of his time for us young men. His door was always open. I genuinely felt a real love he had for me. I feel I can offer the same to the Young Men in our ward.
One of my concerns, as Young Men’s President, is that a very white-washed LDS history is presented to the youth. When they get older (usually in their 30s) many find out what they had learned about LDS history wasn’t entirely accurate. Some are able to wade through the problem. Others cannot. Many leave the church. Elder Marlin Jensen, past Church Historian, said this about the problem: “We have not seen such a large apostasy over these problem [historical issues], since the days of Kirtland.” It’s a huge problem.
With the blessing of my good bishop, I have been teaching the Young Men about some of these more “colorful” parts of our LDS history. The boys love it. This blog we do was started in part do to the encouragement of some of the 16 and 17 year old teenage boys telling me I should start a blog. I have come up against a lot of resistance from adults. Some people going so far as to go around my back to talk to those “higher-ups” to try to get me to stop this approach. Much pain. At times I feel unneeded, unwanted, useless.
Today I had a dear friend of mine from High School label me as an apostate and as someone that is hypercritical of our leaders. This was the man, who as a teenager, I would go visit at his home when my father was being especially difficult. He is the friend I went and stayed with when my father kicked me out of the home for a minor infraction. He was the friend that didn’t judge. He was the friend that would drive me down to Taco Bell and buy me lunch because he knew my family didn’t have the money to pay for such “luxuries”. I almost cried today. Pain. Questioning if I have place in my religious community. Is it worth the struggle?
“No one says any of these things. But they should. Because no one should be left to believe that she is the only one. No one should be left to believe that she is the only Mormon girl who walked alone into the dark. No one should be left to feel like she is the only one broken and seeking.” The Book of Mormon Girl, pg 144
I believe Mormonism will become more welcoming than it has been in the past. To say, “It’s always been this way, so we are going to keep it this way,” has always been the death of an institution. We are seeing things change now. When one looks back on Mormon history, these next few years will be seen as quite remarkable. Mormonism is reforming, but it is not doing so through schisms. It is reforming from the inside. It is reforming from the grass-roots. Not only can Mormonism change, it must, and it will. Of all the religious traditions, Mormonism is best equipped to do so because of our doctrine of ongoing revelation.
How will these things happen? I don’t know. But I am trying to enjoy the ride.
“I am not an enemy, and I will not be disappeared from the faith of my ancestors….But I will keep on crossing as many plains as this life puts in front of me.” pg. 160.
Belief itself is a choice I wrestle with God for, somewhere in a dark swampland, my inner landscape; where not only God’s credibility, but my own are at stake.
That’s really unfortunate that your friend felt the need to pass judgment on you. We all have our own struggles, thoughts, and feelings and all we can do is try to live according to our conscience in the best way we can. Jesus taught to love one another and to turn the other cheek. People who consider themselves Christians should keep this in mind. I think you are doing these young men a great favor by being honest with them and by not apologizing and trying to hide these more “colorful” parts of Mormon history. A living religion should not be threatened by people who ask questions and by people who try to make it better. To quote one of my favorite movies (Moneyball), “I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody.”
Love that quote!!! One of my favorite movies.
Michael, I was reading over this comment last night that you made a few days ago.First off, sorry that your friend has decided to treat you that way…not fun. I was thinking a lot last night and this morning about your comment that you made at the end of your remark:
“I believe Mormonism will become more welcoming than it has been in the past. To say, “It’s always been this way, so we are going to keep it this way,” has always been the death of an institution. We are seeing things change now. When one looks back on Mormon history, these next few years will be seen as quite remarkable. Mormonism is reforming, but it is not doing so through schisms. It is reforming from the inside. It is reforming from the grass-roots. Not only can Mormonism change, it must, and it will. Of all the religious traditions, Mormonism is best equipped to do so because of our doctrine of ongoing revelation.”
It almost seems contradictory to me in a way the concept that you present….and here’s why. You indicate that reform will come through grass roots Mormon efforts…not a top-down change. You then state that because of our doctrine of ongoing revelation that this will happen. It doesn’t feel much like revelation when the masses have to push and push and push for reform. Seems more like the Chilean motto “por la razon o la fuerza.” (by reason or by strength) As I continue to listen to talks from various leaders in conferences, devotionals, etc it seems more and more like they are entrenching themselves in how it has always been done and advocating against any change at all. It seems as though they are wanting to push out any questioning or doubts or critical thinking…which seems to be 180 degrees different in message from what bishop wallace shared a few weeks ago. I get the feeling if I dont conform 100% to what the GA’s are stating that I am sinning and dont fit in.
What are your thoughts? I have been pondering this all day today trying to come to some answer that satisfies my puny brain…so far hasn’t worked.
Great questions. The following is part of a transcript of an interview with Gordon B. Hinkley on an Australian News show called “Compass”. The interview was in November of 1997. I will use it as a launching pad for my view:
David Ransom: So you’d have to get a revelation [to allow women to have priesthood]?
President Hinkley: Yes. But there’s no agitation for that. We don’t find it. Our women are happy. They’re satisfied. These bright, able, wonderful women who administer their own organization are very happy. Ask them. Ask my wife.
What we see here is the idea of “trickle-up revelation”. That is, the impetus for change starting at the grass-roots level.
We always have to keep in mind that revelation, in the context of Mormonism, comes as a result to specific questions. Revelation comes within the cultural context of the time, within its own milieu; it does not come out of a vacuum. If the questions never arrise, then revelation will not come. So that begs the question, from where do the questions arise?
Those of us “on the ground” are the one’s that initially will ask the questions. As those questions arise, they will trickle up to the hierarchy and change may or may not occur.
Here are some examples of “trickle-up revelation”:
1)Single-Adult wards. These started in So. California. A young Thomas Monson came out to see how that local stake had implemented the program. Now it is church-wide
2)The Primary. This was a grass-roots movement that started in the early 20th century and is now implemented church-wide.
3)The temple garment. For the first few decades of the 20th century, garments went down to the ankels and down to the wrists. Women in the church complained. They saw no need for them to be that long if they were just rolling up their sleeves anyways to to house-work. Now the women’s garment tops are capped-sleeved.
4)Blacks and the priesthood/temple ban. This was very much a grass-roots movement. As the church expanded, questions were asked by the laity. The very best example of this is the fact that President Spencer Kimball had Lester Bush’s 1973 Dialogue article extensively underlined. He had studied it very thoroghly and it influenced Spencer Kimball’s questioning of the priethood/temple ban. Here is a link to Bush’s aricle: http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V08N01_71.pdf
5) Changes in temple endowment in 1990. This came after a survey among members regarding parts of the endowment ceremony that were found to be particularly uncomfortable. The church hierarchy responded.
Culturally as Mormons we see things as coming top-down. Many people feel umcomfortable with change even though we hold the doctrine of continuing revelation; it is a true paradox.
But, as I see things, many of the most important changes in the church begin with questions asked by the grass-roots membership. I see this as being partially different from “por la razon o la fuerza”. I do agree with you that things will and do change to accommodate cultural changes (“por la razon”). With the exception of the abandoment of polygamy (which I agree lines up with “por la fuerza”), change comes with faithful agitation.
Now, your other point. Mormonism is much more concerned with ortopraxy than orthodoxy. With that in mind, most of the talks in General Conference deal with obedience. For me this is quite exhausting; that is why Elder Uchdorf is so refreshing.
I agree with you that from the pulpit, it sounds like things aren’t changing. The reason for this is that most of the talks that you hear are concerned with the preservation of the institution. This is undertandable. There is a need for “boarder control”, to distinguish the institution as being different from the greater culture. It is within the institution and culture of Mormonism, that transformation of a person’s soul does occur. My concern is that when the “99” are cared for at the expense of “the one”. But when one looks closely and beyond the confines of General Conference and the Ensign, things appear much differently.
Regarding how the institutional church reacts to “intellectuals” and “critical thinkers” – if it was the early 1990’s, I wold agree with you. It isn’t that way anymore; altough culturally it might be. Members are no longer discouraged from publishing in Dialogue and Sunstone. In fact, appolosgist juch as Kevin Barney, will give addresses at and publish in Sunstone; a cultural and institutional change has and is occuring.
The question then arrises, “Can you hold on and agitate faithfully for change, while things slowly change?” When I hear the story of Darius Gray and how he joined the LDS church despite the priestood/temple ban, it gives me strength to hold on. As President Packer said, “Things change slowly, if they change at all.”
How did I do?
The book was very thought provoking. She told of her professor writing the following on the chalkboard “He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” She described the feeling of hope that this gave her. It’s not hard to understand the contradiction which she felt when several church feminists were excommunicated, or the heartache she felt over the church involvement on prop 8. She’s a very compassionate person, and I feel that church leaders are more compassionate and understanding than they were in the 90’s.
That professor was Eugene England. He is one of the greatest, most unappreciated intellects in our church history. Here is an essay of his that I shared with Troy and with Wendy Beasley. They both loved it:
Thanks for sharing. I too, loved this essay and would encourage everyone to read it.
Had you read that essay before? I sent a copy to Troy afte he had a bad exprience with the CES man ove in Philly. He really appreciated it.
One other thing. If you hit the “reply” button under the comment to which you are responding, that person will get an email message telling them that you responded to that comment. By doing it that way, you can continue a long link of conversation.
Do I have you guys on our blog’s email list? If not, do you want to be on it?
Here’s Paul’s post from today. I think you’ll love it. Very funny. Very weird:
You should leave a comment on his post.
Mike, I appreciate your comments. I think for me where it remains fuzzy is what is the point of having a prophet who is leading and guiding the church through revelation if he has to wait for us to push for change. As a prophet, seer, and revelator shouldnt he be inspired to ask those questions…be inspired to know what the members need…be an agent for change as it pertains to making things better? I dont know…
I hear ya Garrett!
I see where you are coming from, but I see your logic as a bit problematic; now that’s funny, using the word “logic” as we are speaking about religion. Let me restate your position a different way: God should put the question to be asked into the prophet’s mind and then should give him the answer to the question.
Why should the question even be placed in his mind, if the answer is just going to come from the same being that put the question into his mind? The logic seems a bit circular. Now, are there certain questions a prophet might ask that isn’t on the minds of the general membership? I believe that happens on occasion. I believe that perhaps Doctrine and Covenants Section 138 is an example of that. But the far more common way is for there to be a question from the membership. Think of Peter and the Gentiles; almost all of Doctrine and Covenants; Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt; nearly all of the Pauline epistles. A need is seen or a question asked, and then an answer given.
But, with a reported membership of 14 million people, I argue, that the questions that need answers will generally come from the lay members. When I use the word ‘agitation’, I don’t mean anger; I mean concern. Although I understand what you mean by “push for change”, perhaps a better way to get the same idea across, but use our Mormon vernacular, is to say “push for the questions to be asked.”
I believe that this issue of figuring out what questions to ask, is probably one of the reasons why the G.A.s do the local Bishop-training these days. They are coming and speaking with the leaders of the local congregations to see what concerns there are. If we don’t voice our concerns or our questions, questions will not be asked by the leadership and thus change will not occur.
Understood Michael. Let me elaborate a little on my thoughts. We sustain the President of the church as Prophet, seer and revelator. So by definition we are sustaining them as a 1. prophet – “one who utters divinely inspired revelations, one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight, a leading spokesman for a cause, doctrine or group.” 2. Seer – “one that sees, one that predicts events or developments, a person credited with extraordinary moral and spiritual insight.” and 3. Revelator – “one that reveals, one that reveals the will of God.”
I took those definitions from Websters Dictionary. I guess according to what I read into these definitions and my own personal feelings is that the prophet should be the one with the greater insight into what directions should be taken, greater feel for changes that need to be made, and one that has a greater pulse on the what the masses most need.
I dont necessarily think that the Lord should be whispering everything into the prophet’s ears, but isnt that what the Spirit is for? And if the prophet has greater spiritual insight than the rest of us why are we having to push most change through grass roots change efforts.
I hope it doesnt come across as me complaining…i really am trying to work this out in my head how it is all supposed to work and I just cant quite wrap my head around it
I see where you are coming from. I am not sure if “pushing through changes” is quite the wording I would use, but I do think many people feel that way.
Now, I am confused with your question, “Isn’t that what the Spirit is for?” In the context of the earlier part of that sentence, it sounds like you are arguing that the Spirit (I assume you mean the 3rd member of the God-head) does whisper everything into the prophet’s ear. Since I am not sure that is what you mean, I won’t present an argument against it.
I also hope that the prophet does have more spiritual insight than the rest of us. I think that you and I are looking at the idea of “questions” as ontologically different. It seems to me that the questions will arise as specific problems come about with which we as members struggle. Those questions will come to the attention of the GAs in SLC, only as we voice them.
I say that the general membership is forming questions from the bottom up. My interpretation of what you perceive is that one is pushing through for change. With how I view things, the agency of the general membership is preserved, while still allowing for a prophetic voice.
With that in mind, I agree with you when you say, “[the prophet(s)] should have greater insight into what directions should be taken, greater feel for changes that need to be made.” As the questions come to their attention, one would hope that their insights would give us direction as to the best way to proceed. But as you know, this inspiration comes through the filter of their own fallibility.
I think most of us members have the romantic perception that our church is a mono-episcipol church. It is not. It is run by councils, just like our wards are. Rarely does a bishop just make a pronouncement without any debate and everyone just falls in line. From my reading many books about our LDS church history, I have found that the same dynamics occur at the highest levels also. Things are debated and wrestled with. This church is fully human – and fully divine.
I enjoyed this post and the discussions in the comments. Enjoyed is probably the wrong word – but nonetheless. (I really love using the word nonetheless!)
I thought some of you might like this blog post from my sister. It’s her review of the book.
It led to some great conversations between her and I. It’s amazing how much her and I have NOT talked about our issues with the church. We are so prone to keeping that private – which is just a sad business and another reason I love this blog.
And Mike – Every time I read things from you I remember why I loved being friends with you in college. I’m glad I’m still getting to here your “voice”. You’re a fantastic human being.
Thanks for sharing your sister’s review. It makes you wonder how many of us have felt these same types of feelings and yet felt so alone. I know what you mean about not tending to talk with each other about your issues with the church. Sometimes it feels so private it’s hard to even express it, but I’m glad that this and other forums are beginning to make that a little easier.