Sam Brown: “Taking Risks and Talking Plainly”

11.17.2014 | Guest

Samuel M. Brown joins us in this guest post describing his latest book First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple. The book is available now on Amazon.com and at fine Utah booksellers like Benchmark, Deseret Book, King’s English, and Zion’s Books. This Friday Brown will be at Zion’s Books in Provo, Utah to read excerpts and sign copies.—BHodges

My first book on Mormonism, In Heaven as It Is on Earth, turned a decidedly academic eye on the landscape of early Mormonism. I loved writing that book and I am grateful for the critical response it received, but over time I realized that I had protected myself in that book in two crucial ways. First, I had taken a carefully neutral approach to the subject matter and didn’t disclose my personal religious affiliation. Second, I had written in academic language. Both were necessary to allow me to make a scholarly contribution, and I wouldn’t change them if I had to write In Heaven again (please, no!). But I’ve come to wonder whether something else was required of me.

One of the peer reviewers on my book reported: “perhaps some readers will want to know whether he is Mormon or not, that was far from clear to me.” The peer reviewer wasn’t the only person who wasn’t sure whether I were Mormon. One reviewer on Goodreads reported that “it takes an outsider to see things that insiders miss.” I made the decision to keep my own religious affiliation out of the way after long deliberation. I’m sympathetic to the goals behind disclosure of competing loyalties—in my main field of biomedical research, those disclosures are incessant. I did not disclose my church membership in the book because I wanted to force myself to let the documents lead me where they would. I worried that taking an explicit position as a Mormon writer would induce me to make decisions I wouldn’t otherwise. Just as I had policed my translation of an Eastern Orthodox writer’s biography of Christ a decade previously, so did I attend very closely to interpretive decisions when I felt I might be introducing bias. I didn’t have the luxury of a self-disclosure to tell me that the reader would automatically take my arguments with a grain of salt. (The empirical literature on mandatory disclosure policies suggests that I was correct on that point: disclosing a potential conflict often makes both discloser and disclosee more likely to make errors of judgment.)

My decision to use academic prose wasn’t really a choice. That’s just how I think and talk and write. I was a linguistics major in college and have always been in love with words. When I was young, words were like friends, the dictionary a party bound in cloth. By just writing how I think, I was able to express academic arguments more rigorously than I would have been able to otherwise. But that approach to writing left many readers—especially curious Latter-day Saints—out in the cold. Many people told me that they had to use a dictionary to read In Heaven. Others reported that they relied instead on a thesaurus.

My practice when it comes to the intersection of history and my personal religious belief is to try to understand the historical and spiritual witnesses separately, on their own terms. My training and experience in biomedical research tell me that information is most, well, informative when the data behind it are independent and uncluttered. Through In Heaven and related academic work, I described what seemed to me the most probable account of Joseph Smith’s theological world. That felt helpful and important to me.

But I am also a participant in an actual religious community, not just the virtual guild of academics and writers. I attend church each week, teach lessons, perform custodial work when it’s my turn, and commonly break bread—both in the sacramental meal we share with God each week and in informal dinners with friends. Did I owe, I wondered, anything to my church community?

I decided to work out in writing some of the actual implications for a twenty-first-century believer of the theology whose contours I had traced in my history research. I realized that I owed a debt to my fellow Latter-day Saints to explain in plain terms what I had discovered. If my history work told me anything, it was that the Restoration was about our interdependence as Saints. It was about covenants of mutual regard and belonging strong enough to unite the human family in the face of relentless mortality. So it was only fair to step outside the careful, safe confines of academic writing.

I felt that I needed a more personal, accessible, and vulnerable approach to the problem.

So I wrote First Principles and Ordinances on Sunday mornings. I worked with editors experienced in trade publishing to make sure my language was accessible to non-academic readers. My goal was to present in plain language what I think as a believing, practicing Latter-day Saint about the theology of relation that Joseph Smith revealed.