Adam Miller on more Letters to a Young Mormon [MIPodcast #76]
Adam Miller wrote Letters to a Young Mormon for thoughtful people yearning for a more thoughtful faith. It’s a little book, but it packs a powerful punch. In this episode, Miller is talks about the new second expanded edition, which the Maxwell Institute recently published in partnership with Deseret Book. We also talk about the perils of Mormon quasi-celebrity, bad book reviews, apologetics, his future projects, and other things.
Stick around after the interview with Adam; we’ve got a special mini-episode with Institute visiting scholar Janiece Johnson asking for help with her current project.
Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. He and his wife, Gwen, have three children. He is the author of many books, including Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2012) and Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology (Fordham University Press, 2013), and two editions of Letters to a Young Mormon (Maxwell Institute & Deseret Book, 2018). He also serves as the director of the Mormon Theology Seminar.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Adam Miller is the author of a book called Letters to a Young Mormon. It’s a little book but it packs a powerful punch. In this episode, Miller is here to talk about the new second expanded edition of the book. I’ve known Adam for a number of years now, so this interview is a little bit more informal than some of the other episodes.
Adam is a professor of philosophy at Colin College in McKinney, Texas, and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He also recently delivered an Institute guest lecture here at Brigham Young University, and you’ll be able to catch a recording of that lecture in the coming weeks.
Before we get to Adam, I also wanted to thank listener “Rachel_Ann.” She took time out of her presumably busy schedule to rate and review the Maxwell Institute Podcast in iTunes. Among other things, she said “I love listening to this podcast during my morning workouts; it gives me so much to think about every day. It’s broadening my horizons and helping me to see scripture and daily life in new, creative, spiritually uplifting ways. I’m looking forward to future episodes. Keep up the great work!”
Thank you, Rachel_Ann. We’ll also invite everybody to stick around after the interview with Adam in this episode. We’ve got a special little mini-episode tacked onto the end with Janiece Johnson, a visiting scholar here at the Maxwell Institute. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at mipodcast at byu dot edu. Here’s Adam Miller talking about Letters to a Young Mormon.
BLAIR HODGES: Adam Miller, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast again.
ADAM MILLER: It is a pleasure to be on the podcast, Blair. My children love the podcast and they will think I’m a boss for being back on again.
HODGES: Yeah? For the first interview did they actually listen to you?
MILLER: They have never listened to me on the podcast, but they especially love the intro music.
HODGES: Oh good. Thank you very much. And hello to the Miller kids. There’s Samantha, and—
HODGES: Do you keep your kid’s names secret? Some people are like, “I never want people to know about my kids.” You already said Joshua, so he’s out.
MILLER: Joshua’s out. I probably shouldn’t mention Nathan either. Too late for that now, I guess. I mean, I don’t post things about them on Facebook, etc. but…
HODGES: Well hello to all of them, and thanks for listening. We’re talking about Letters to a Young Mormon and that’s what we talked about last time as well. We did an interview when the first edition came out. You may have talked about this in other places, but it might be useful for people to hear a little bit about how the second edition came about, like why a second edition.
MILLER: Well I think the big impetus for the second edition was the chance to co-publish it with not just the Maxwell Institute but with Deseret Book so that we could potentially reach a much bigger audience.
HODGES: Yeah, they have a pretty good-sized audience comparatively—
MILLER: They’ve got a pretty good-sized audience, Deseret Book. That, I think, was the big impetus. And along the way it gave me a chance to flesh out and clarify some parts of the original book and add two new letters to the book.
HODGES: As you were going back through the book do you remember anything in particular that you were glad you were able to revisit and revise? I should let people know too, at the time I was working as a co-editor on The Living Faith Series and so I was kind of involved in that as well. There aren’t a bunch of huge changes in this book. We should make that clear. The two new letters are obviously the biggest change. There’s a new preface, and then some revisions throughout, pretty light revisions here and there. Any of those particular revisions that you thought, “Oh, I’m glad I got to do that”? Not every author gets the chance to do that with a book, so.
MILLER: No. Yeah. I made a couple of changes to the chapter on sin to help clarify the role the potentially positive role that stories play in our religious experience, so long as we don’t let them take over that experience and become a kind of idol that we worship.
HODGES: What is the role that stories play? What is that?
MILLER: Well I think stories are an inevitable part of being a human being. Part of what makes a human being a human being is that we tell stories to help us understand ourselves. But when we get sucked into the trap of thinking that our stories are more important than the thing that they’re trying to describe, then we end up in pretty tough spots, often pretty frustrated, pretty disappointed.
HODGES: What’s an example of a story that you’re talking about? When you’re talking about someone having a story, what do you mean? Like what they think about who they are? Or what direction their life is going in or what?
MILLER: Yeah, especially the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves as a way of understanding who we are and what matters to us, and what our goals are and what our expectations are. Those stories are a really important part of being a human being and they bind us together and they can give us kind of direction and purpose, but they can also be a kind of trap we get stuck in because another basic feature of being a human being is that reality is going to pretty consistently fail to match up in neat ways with the stories that we’re trying to tell, especially about ourselves.
HODGES: That kind of thing can lead to frustration or alienation or discouragement, and it seems like you’re concerned about some of the emotions that can grow out of the stories that we tell.
MILLER: Yeah, that’s part of it. And I think a big part of it has to do with the way that we end up preferring the stories we want our lives to tell over the actual life that God is giving us, and in that sense preferring my stories about my life to the life that God is actually giving is a way of rejecting God and distancing myself from Him and then I think, is it the real root danger in the end of getting trapped in prioritizing our stories over the actual stuff of life.
HODGES: It was interesting to me that that was one of the parts that you added additional clarification for, because you might remember Elder Christofferson, one of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles quoted from Letters to a Young Mormon in a devotional, which ended up in the Ensign. That was actually the point that he lifted from that, was the idea of what our stories are versus looking to Christ rather than just clinging to our own stories.
MILLER: Yeah. I think that the trick is, as with many things, to neither fall in love with your stories to the extent that you make an idol of them while neither trying to get rid of them altogether. There’s a kind of value, a kind of necessity to the stories that we tell each other about who we are and what matters to us, that we shouldn’t underestimate, while at the same time stories have to keep their proper place as just a way of talking about the things that matter to us, not something to be substituted for the things themselves.
HODGES: It seems to be a pretty difficult needle to thread though, because so many people are very goal-oriented and driven by ideas of what the future can look like, and in order to get to a particular desired future we have to have benchmarks and see a path there, and at the same time you’re saying that that’s a good thing but you’re also cautioning about the pitfalls of that. It seems like a really hard needle to thread.
MILLER: Yeah, and to the degree that when you thread it, it’s one that you have to thread over and over and over again.
HODGES: It’s almost like you have no choice, right, because you can’t control the outcome all the way?
MILLER: Yeah, and I think that that ends up being a really important part of what a religious life looks like, is that though I may have goals I’m interested in pursuing, nonetheless as I pursue them I’m always willing to surrender them in favor of what God is offering instead.
HODGES: In your lecture that you delivered here at Brigham Young University you talked about moral creativity. Is that connected to this line of thought as well? Maybe explain a little bit about what you mean by “moral creativity.”
MILLER: Well I think moral creativity doesn’t have to do, first of all, with creating new morals. It has to do instead, it’s a way to describe the ways in which being moral depends on our finding ways to be creative in our relationships with other people, especially, so that we don’t get trapped in these kinds of stalemates where neither of us are capable of doing anything new or reaching out to each other or opening new avenues for justice or mercy or new kinds of deeper, more meaningful relationships with each other. There’s a kind of creativity that’s necessary on our part to not get angry in a thoughtless way when things happen that make us angry. We have to seize the moment and not act like a robot and instead do something new, surprising. I think that’s the kind of thing Jesus is constantly urging and modeling in the New Testament. Find a way to respond differently to people. Find a way to respond in a way that might be surprising and reconfigure the situation so that something new can happen and we’re not just stuck in the same patterns of frustration and violence and dissatisfaction.
HODGES: You made this point about when Christ is talking about if someone sues you for your coat, I think, give them your cloak also. If someone wants you to walk a mile, go with them twain. The way that that’s typically interpreted differs from what you offer. Talk about that a little bit.
MILLER: Well I focused especially on Jesus’s saying that if someone asks you to go with them a mile, go with them twain, right? “Go the extra mile” is the popular version of that Jesus saying. The popular reading of that saying is that Jesus means for us to work harder and do more, right? “Go the extra mile.”
HODGES: Be better for some, yeah. Help someone more than is expected.
MILLER: And as far as that goes, that’s good advice. But Walter Wink, who was a New Testament scholar, has argued, and I think pretty persuasively, that in the context of Jesus’s world he’s after something different. In the context of Jesus’s world where the Jews were occupied by a foreign Roman power, by the Roman Empire, by Roman soldiers, what was at stake was a very specific proscription against Roman soldiers being allowed to force people to carry their packs for more than a mile. This is written into Roman military code, right? That they couldn’t force people to carry their packs for more than a mile. So what you have is a kind of scenario where an occupying power can force the people they’re oppressing to carry their pack for a mile, but that’s it.
And Jesus, Wink argues, is outlining a kind of strategy here for forcing the Roman soldier to not respond to you simply as someone who he can oppress, but as his own equal, by your in a sense refusing to give him his pack back and carrying it for an extra mile, so you really put the Roman soldier in a kind of bind, right? He either has to forcefully take his pack from you, in which he’s in essence forced to treat you as a kind of equal, right? Because, “No, no, give me back my pack!” right? In which he’s forced to importune you instead of you importuning him. Or he has to risk letting you carry it for him another mile in your own volition and the possible consequences that come from that.
So Wink argues that what Jesus is aiming for here is a kind of strategy that would force the Roman soldier to not respond to you in those kind of automatic, robotic ways, but that would reconfigure your relationship to him and open a moment of kind of moral creativity in which you and the soldier could look each other eye to eye, for at least a moment and be equals.
HODGES: So since most of us aren’t dealing with Roman soldiers then how would you apply that kind of thing in everyday life today?
MILLER: Well, I think it’s not hard to find examples in the course of our daily lives, maybe especially with our own family members, where we get stuck in kind of particular patterns of relationships, where my child acts one way and then I automatically respond to them in my predictable “dad” way, right? And there’s these kinds of patterns that we tend to get stuck in in our relationships with other people that prevent us from actually connecting with each other, right? That prevent me from actually seeing my son and what he needs, or for my son seeing that I actually care for him given the kind of response I’m offering him. Where if I could just step back for just a moment, just occupy, kind of be in silence before responding automatically and thoughtlessly and allow myself to be just a little bit creative in how I responded to my kids or to my wife, or to a student or to a coworker, the relationship could unfold in a very different way and open onto a kind of care and possible connection that our typical frozen patterns of relationship don’t allow for.
HODGES: So I take it you’re perfect at this yourself, right? Now that you’re able to tell people about it, only because you’re able to do it all the time.
MILLER: Absolutely. As a philosopher, everything I’m able to talk about, yeah, you can take for granted.
HODGES: That’s right, that’s exactly right.
And speaking of being a philosopher, I’ve heard you joke with other people last night at Writ and Vision in Provo, there was an event, and one of the people there with you mentioned he had now decided to be a philosophy major and you laughed, you apologized, and asked, you know, “Don’t blame me for what’s coming down the road.” It’s a funny joke, but when you get down to it, we look at education as something that often leads to employment, people thinking about how they’re going to support families, or that sort of thing, and getting a philosophy degree might not seem to be very helpful in that way. So I wanted to hear some ideas or thoughts from you about the utility, the usefulness, of getting a degree in philosophy, and what that’s done for you.
MILLER: It’s not a super useful thing to get a degree in. Especially graduate degrees in philosophy. I mean, there’s a lot of useful things you can do with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, which are like going to medical school or law school. But basically the only thing you’re prepared—
HODGES: —Sorry, did you think you were going to do that when you initially started?
MILLER: No. For me, I mean, my story is a little different. It’s a little funnier than that. My undergraduate degree is not in philosophy. My undergraduate degree from BYU is in comparative literature.
HODGES: Comparative literature, that’s right. I remember. So you switched over later.
MILLER: Yeah, so that in the moment when I decided to do my graduate work in philosophy, that struck my parents as a moment in which I was growing up and becoming practical. This was a practical move—
HODGES: More practical than comparative literature. Apologies to the comparative literature people.
MILLER: Instead of studying poetry for the rest of my life I was going to do something more serious and practical, like studying philosophy. But unless you’re studying poetry, you’re not going to be able to make that same kind of move and studying philosophy is going to look less practical, so it’s probably not going to work for most people.
HODGES: Were you following in your parent’s footsteps at all? What kind of education and interests did they have?
MILLER: My parents are both teachers.
HODGES: So education was important.
MILLER: My mother was in fact my own fourth-grade teacher.
HODGES: Oh, okay.
MILLER: My father was an elementary school teacher and went back and got a graduate degree, a master’s, and a PhD in educational administration and then worked as a principal and a superintendent. My father was my high school principal. So my mother was my fourth-grade teacher and my father was my high school principal.
HODGES: Did you ever have to go to the principal’s office?
MILLER: I went to the principal’s office all the time, especially for lunch money. Also I would often pester the principal to let me into the high school gym after hours, things like that. So there were perks. There tended to be more perks to my father being my principal than there were downsides.
HODGES: And so they saw this comparative literature guy choosing philosophy, going that route. Now to the young man who talked to you about that. What kind of things would you envision for someone thinking about getting a degree in philosophy that’s not an undergraduate degree?
MILLER: Well the trouble is if you get a graduate degree in philosophy they’re only training you to do one thing, which is to be a professional academic studying philosophy. The real problem with that is that there are literally no jobs. I have a job at a community college in Texas that I’ve been at for twelve years. There are more than one hundred other philosophers that applied for that job at a community college twelve years ago, and the job market is worse than it was then. For any kind of position at a major university you’re competing with two or three hundred other people for one position. Your odds are not good.
HODGES: What do you say to contemplative people who take a real interest in philosophy? I mean it’s a real luxury to be able to study that and get a degree and to become a professor and to work with students. What do you tell your students then, that really have a deep interest in philosophy, but also look at some of the practical obstacles they might face if they choose that as a career path?
MILLER: It is a real luxury to be an academic, period, and maybe to be a philosopher in particular, where you have a lot of freedom to roam basically wherever you want to think about, whatever you want to think about, because everything belongs to the field of philosophy. For me, working at a community college, I work almost exclusively with students who are taking philosophy classes to fulfill general education requirements, so it’s pretty rare for me to bump into a student who thinks they want to even major as an undergraduate in philosophy. So that part doesn’t come up very often, but I think I would in general want to make clear to people that to participate in the life of the mind in meaningful and rewarding ways doesn’t require you to do that professionally. You can have a day job that you also love and feel like you’re making a meaningful contribution to the world and go home and read whatever you want at night.
HODGES: I think the Internet also helps. In some ways it can be harmful because there’s such a glut of information and where do you turn? But on the other hand, you can network with other people that are maybe reading the same things or you can hear about things to read or whatever. So it seems like even though it’s hard in the field to get positioned, it’s also an interesting time when a lot of people can get involved in philosophy.
MILLER: You can find a community, right? You can find a community of people without a lot of trouble who are willing to talk about whatever you want to talk about. If that’s contemporary continental philosophy after you’re done managing a restaurant for the day, good for you. You’re not going to have a hard time finding people who are willing to talk about that with you, and that is something pretty new.
HODGES: That’s Adam Miller. We’re talking with him about his new book, Letters to a Young Mormon. It’s a second edition, co-published by the Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book.
As I mentioned earlier, yesterday you delivered a lecture at Brigham Young University, and a lot of students showed up. We had to turn some people away. I felt really bad about that, that we didn’t have enough space. I wanted to ask you about this idea of like “Mormon celebrity,” this idea of sort of becoming a figure that people would recognize your name. I wanted to know kind of how you felt about that, that there are people who know Adam Miller, who follow your work, and buy the books that you write. I publicize the books that you’ve done with us and so I’m kind of in that mix a little bit in thinking about what it means to be putting somewhere up there like this. I’m interested in your thoughts on that.
MILLER: Well I’m glad people buy the books. I’m glad people are interested in the work that I do. The little bit of celebrity that has come with it is weird. It makes me glad to not live in Utah. I can visit Utah a couple of times a year and be “Adam Miller” for a couple of days and it’s kind of fun and then go home, right? But if I had to be “Adam Miller” all the time, I don’t think I would enjoy it very much.
HODGES: You’re not “Adam Miller” at home either, right? It’s a different Adam Miller.
MILLER: No, very much not at all. I think it would be a surprise to most people in my ward that Adam Miller is “Adam Miller.” In my ward at home I teach the seventeen year old’s Sunday School class, I’ve done things like that, just little things in the ward for as long as we’ve been in Texas. But there’s a line too from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, his book called The Handbook that always comes to mind, where Epictetus says, “If other people think you amount to something, distrust yourself.” And I think that’s a good motto for anybody in public life, you all should take that as your motto. “If other people think you amount to something, distrust yourself.”
HODGES: I’m interested to hear more about some of the pitfalls of the celebrity “Adam Miller.”
MILLER: Well to be honest I think I have only any kind of glancing contact with celebrity, such as it is. I mean I think celebrity is risky. It’s a risky thing. It’s easy to lose track of what’s real and what matters. It’s easy to lose track of what kinds of things are actually valuable in our relationships with other people. It’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting other people to agree with you and being upset when they don’t. From the other side of the story, I think as a culture, both as Americans and also as Mormons, we tend to put people in really difficult spots by painting them into the box of celebrities, which we have unrealistic expectations of them.
I think that’s not uncommon with respect to how we tend to think about how our General Authorities in the church, the members of the Quorum of the Twelve, the First Presidency. It’s easy to turn them into not people and to kind of celebrity idols in whom we invest our fantasies of kind of moral and religious perfection and then that makes it difficult for them, and when they turn out to be people like the rest of us, called by God but people like the rest of us nonetheless, then there’s a lot of room for disappointment and frustration there. It’s unnecessary I think.
HODGES: As you said, you’re not super-super rock star, right? You kind of have a little bit of celebrity status in terms of your name being known in some circles of thoughtful Mormons who pay attention to some of the stuff that comes out of BYU or the Maxwell Institute or places like this. But I thought it would be fun to have you read some of these one star reviews you’ve received. So I’ve got this one from someone called Rebecca. So, yes, just read the first couple of lines. You don’t have to read the whole thing.
MILLER: So this is like mean tweets on Jimmy Kimmel. So you’re Jimmy Kimmel and I’m Anne Hathaway.
HODGES: Yes, that’s right.
MILLER: Alright, this is a one star review…is this of one of the books in particular?
HODGES: Yeah, it’s Letters.
MILLER: This is a one-star review—
HODGES: Do you have a lot of one star reviews of like each book?
MILLER: I’m sure there are some. I appreciate the engagement that it manifests, even if people disagree with me. I mean I’ve always taken it for granted as a philosopher that disagreement is the highest compliment you can pay someone.
HODGES: Sure, you’ve got them talking about it.
MILLER: Yeah. Alright. This is a one-star review of Letters to a Young Mormon.
“I read this for book club and it’s not something I would have picked up otherwise. The idea was good enough, but I started subtracting stars every time the smug pretentious voice became overly preachy, or the metaphors glaringly overwrought.”
HODGES: That’s… yeah. Well she better not try the audio book then because then she’ll also hear, not just reading the smug, like, she’ll hear it too.
MILLER: I mean I spent years and years of training and school and as a professor, you know, cultivating that kind of smug and pretentious tone of voice.
HODGES: It’s earned pretentiousness.
MILLER: It’s like the way that, you know, once you are a doctor you don’t have to bother making your signature look like it spells anything anymore. It’s the same kind of earned—
HODGES: —Here’s this next one. You don’t have to say his full name.
MILLER: Well there’s only a first name here. It’s Scott’s review, also one star, of Letters to a Young Mormon.
“I was only able to get through three chapters of this book.”
HODGES: [laughter] It’s a short book.
MILLER: That’s only like six pages.
MILLER: So he didn’t make it far.
“I was only able to get through three chapters of this book, so it’s possible that it got better. However the parts that I read were so overwritten and needlessly complex and ambiguous that I’m not sure what teenage kid would glean anything from those chapters.”
I’m a little bit sympathetic.
HODGES: Yeah. There’s one more. This is probably my favorite one star review. It’s from Marva. And this is a review that was posted just a couple of months after the first edition came out. So this is one star, from Marva.
MILLER: One star from Marva, Letters to a Young Mormon.
“This book has great information for all to read. My husband and I have read it several times. It’s short and to the point.”
HODGES: One star.
MILLER: One star.
HODGES: Thank you, Marva. If you’re listening, thank you very much. And by the way, Marva, you can change it to a five star review. Amazon lets you do that.
MILLER: If that’s what she meant.
HODGES: But maybe she did mean one star.
MILLER: Maybe she did.
HODGES: She might have incredibly high standards.
MILLER: Yeah, “simple and to the point,” that gets you one. You’ve earned one.
HODGES: Exactly. That’s Adam Miller. We’re talking about Letters to a Young Mormon.
I wanted to switch gears here a little bit and talk about the idea of disciple-scholarship. The relationship between your own personal faith and the work that you do, because you’ve published books that don’t touch on Mormonism. They’re probably informed somewhat by your faith and by your background obviously but you’ve published books that aren’t written geared towards Mormons or about Mormonism. Then you’ve also spent a lot of time on the books for Mormon readers as well. How do you conceive of the idea of disciple-scholarship? This is a term that Elder Neal A. Maxwell coined, to talk about the relationship between someone’s scholarship and their faith.
MILLER: Yeah, all of my substantial professional work as a scholar just fits broadly into the category of philosophy of religion and doesn’t have anything to do with Mormonism in particular. But still I think for me as a scholar, especially working in the field of philosophy of religion, whether or not that work is explicitly connected to Mormonism, it’s not hard for me to see the connections between the research that I do and the lived experience of religion or a kind of phenomenology of grace or what it looks like to engage in contemplative practices and the connections between spirituality and boredom, these kinds of questions that I take up in my scholarly work. It’s not hard for me to see what kind of connection they have to lived religion on the ground, even especially maybe in my own life.
For me I think a lot of being a disciple-scholar turns on doing the kind of work that prepares the ground for other people to continue to do similar kinds of work. I mean I think there are kind of two different models for the disciple-scholar. One model for the disciple-scholar is the warrior, who goes out and does battle with the enemies of the faith, right? And defends the church and the gospel and the tradition from false accusations and spurious claims and bad research and sets the record straight. That’s kind of one model, I think, for the disciple-scholar but that’s never been for me the kind of model I was primarily interested in.
I think the other model for the disciple-scholar is the model of the farmer, who is patiently cultivating ground and planting seeds and engaging in conversation and gathering research and giving the kind of work that we do as scholars the room and space to grow and the time and patience to see if it’s going to be worthwhile to us or to our children or to our grandchildren in the end. I think both of those kinds of work have their place, but I’ve always been a lot more of a farmer than a warrior.
HODGES: What about the pitfalls of either of those? I mean, with the warrior side of things are there ways that can go astray? With the farmer type model are there things that that can miss out on? You talk about a certain need for different types. How about some potential negative side effects of either approach? What are some of the possible downsides, what’s some of the good that can still be done?
MILLER: Well I think one possible downside to the warrior model is that it’s easy to get stuck in patterns of pugilistic give and take and it’s easy to get entrenched in a certain way of seeing things and in particular in a way of seeing people as the enemy, that in lots of ways run counter to the basic thrust of the gospel, which is to find ways to love the enemy and to refuse to let them in the end be your enemy. So in one sense there is a time and place for setting the record straight and not letting people get away with saying things about the church that are false and harmful and untrue, but on the other hand I think there’s a real danger in being primarily occupied with that and falling in the trap of always relating to people who don’t belong to our side of the fence as the enemy.
The farmer on the other hand, I think one real risk that the farmer takes is that it requires a lot of time and patience to see what’s going to grow and what’s going to be worthwhile and what kind of research is going to be useful or not, what kind of conversations will or won’t bear fruit with people who agree or disagree with us in varying ways. You have to be willing to allow a difference of opinion and be willing to engage in conversation with people who disagree with you without immediately bringing the conversation to a halt. So there’s a kind of risk inherent in engaging in that long-term work as well.
HODGES: That’s Adam Miller. We’re talking today about Letters to a Young Mormon, a new book from the Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book. Adam’s also written other books, including Translations of Scriptures, kind of his own back-pocket translations. He’s done one of Romans—
MILLER: Paraphrases, I would say, is probably more accurate.
HODGES: Paraphrases, you say. You call them “modest paraphrases” even. Or is that just this one?
MILLER: Well the modifier changes.
HODGES: Oh, okay. So yeah, tell me, please.
MILLER: I’ve done three of these little paraphrases, I think, of under-appreciated books of scripture. One is a little paraphrase of the book of Romans, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and that is subtitled as An Urgent Paraphrase. I did a little paraphrase of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, subtitled A Blunt Paraphrase.
HODGES: It’s a blunt book.
MILLER: Because Ecclesiastes is famously dark and pessimistic.
HODGES: Yeah. “You’re all gonna die and nothing matters.”
MILLER: Nothing matters.
HODGES: That’s the whole book.
MILLER: That’s the whole book, yeah. It’s really something else. And this most recent one is a paraphrase of what’s sometimes called the Song of Songs, or in the King James version I think it’s referred to as the Song of Solomon, which is basically Hebrew love poetry, which I think some church leaders in the past have urged members just to staple the pages shut and not be exposed to this kind of erotic biblical content. But I offer here, I say, “A Modest Paraphrase” of Solomon’s Song of Songs.
HODGES: Modest in the sense of modesty, then?
MILLER: Well ,being a little tongue in cheek, I think, both in that, you know, it’s modest in my attempt to render parts of it. But also, yeah, kind of playing around with the fact that this is a Mormon approved version of the Song of Songs. I tone it down a little bit in some places so it’s slightly less explicit than it is in Hebrew, but I try to let the spirit of the thing come through.
HODGES: Do you find much religious devotion in that? I know that’s one of the complaints that people have had is that this is a book that doesn’t lend itself well to sort of what people think of as being inspirational, but then there’s a long history of interpretation of the book that allegorizes it and treats it very religiously so does your paraphrase do the same thing and treat it religiously? Or is it more treated just straightforward love song type stuff?
MILLER: It’s true on the face of it that the Song of Songs is kind of an aberration in the biblical canon because it never mentions God in the entire Song of Songs, like his name doesn’t even come up. God doesn’t come up.
HODGES: Pharaoh’s in there.
MILLER: Pharaoh’s in there, Solomon’s in there, there’s little hints and illusions to different aspects of Israelite history, but God never comes up. So on the face of it it doesn’t seem to have much to do with God, but I think if there’s a part of the Christian tradition that should be prepared to see the relationship between a man and a woman, especially maybe the erotic, sexual aspect of that relationship, as being potentially ground zero for not just a connection with another person, but with the divine, it probably ought to be us as Mormons.
HODGES: In the back of the book they have James Faulconer from Brigham Young University talking about how this particular paraphrase of the Song of Solomon, he says, “unveils the tender and sensual love poetry of the ancient book in plain English, and by doing that it reminds us of the sacredness of embodied human love giving power to prophetic metaphor.” When you started this particular project of Song of Solomon were you aiming for that already or did you just dive in without knowing what direction it would take?
MILLER: I kind of dove in without being clear about what direction it would take. I mean part of the work that I do with these paraphrases is a chance to spend time with books that I want to spend time understanding better, and that was partly true here with the Song of Songs, with the Song of Solomon. One of the other things that I think that is potentially noteworthy and of interest about the Song of Songs is that there’s some scholarly consensus that it may have been written by a woman, the Song of Songs. Which means as far as I can tell it’s the only book in the Mormon canon of scripture that might have been written by a woman, and maybe especially deserves some attention as a result.
HODGES: Do you think these projects are going to continue? Do you plan to do more paraphrases of scripture? Or do you feel like that’s kind of run its course?
MILLER: I think I might do more of them. I haven’t settled on what to do next. So we will see.
HODGES: Do you have any ideas? You said these are kind of the overlooked books that you’re actually kind of interested in. How many more of those are there? The Old Testament has a lot of books that people don’t spend a lot of time in.
MILLER: That’s true.
HODGES: So is it going to be a lot of Old Testament stuff?
MILLER: I’m really not sure. I mean, I almost, instead of doing the Song of Songs, I almost attempted to break Isaiah up into three or four parts and do some of those, a kind of paraphrase of Isaiah in plainer English that might make him more accessible because I think a lot like Paul’s epistles in the New Testament, the King James Versions of Isaiah and Paul’s epistles are gorgeous and beautiful but basically unreadable in terms of their sense—
HODGES: Comprehension, yeah.
MILLER: Yeah, in terms of comprehending the basic point that they’re making, and so I think there could be a lot of value to a kind of plain English paraphrase of the book of Isaiah. Maybe especially for Mormons, for whom Isaiah is absolutely pivotal to understanding what’s going on in the Book of Mormon and how the restoration picks up and transforms our understanding of the Bible. I don’t know. We will see what happens. That turned out to feel a little too ambitious for a little side project. So I just did the Song of Songs instead.
HODGES: You took the easy road.
MILLER: I did.
HODGES: By choosing the love poetry that most Mormons have probably never read.
MILLER: Once again, I chose the easy road of canonical erotica.
HODGES: Yeah. The only real and extended example of that.
I should mention too, the latest of these paraphrases that you’ve done was published by BCC Press, it’s a new independent press from the blog By Common Consent. People can check out their offerings at bccpress.org. We’re talking with Adam Miller about his books, including the new Letters to a Young Mormon.
Before we go, this interview’s a little more button-down, obviously. Adam, you’ve done several interviews on Letters to a Young Mormon so I wanted to kind of go off the beaten path a little bit in this interview. So I’d advise people if they’re interested in knowing more specifically about Letters to a Young Mormon you can either listen to the earlier interview that we did with Adam several years ago, or check out some of the other podcasts that he’s going to be on, including Mormon Land, from the Salt Lake Tribune. What other shows are you schedules on? I know you are going to be on Doug Wright’s radio show.
MILLER: Doug Wright’s show on KSL, yeah.
HODGES: And in addition to Doug Wright, the Mormon News Report, I believe as well.
HODGES: Before we go, I also wanted to say you have another book coming out from the Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book. It’s coming out in May. It’s called An Early Resurrection, so give us the thirty-second synopsis. When that comes out we’ll do an interview on that book and talk about it more in depth. I’m going to try to bring some other people in on the discussion for that one, some other visiting scholars at the Institute, and get a little round table discussion going on that one. In the meantime, give us an idea of what that book’s about, following up to Letters to a Young Mormon.
MILLER: Well the book is called An Early Resurrection: Life in Christ Before You Die. The basic image at the heart of the book is that living a new life in Christ involves handling time in a different way than we do as the natural man or the natural woman. Our tendency is to live time from front to back, from beginning to end, to wait in the present moment for the salvation that we hope will come in the future.
HODGES: Like when Jesus returns or—
MILLER: Like when Jesus returns or after I’ve died and passed through the judgment bar.
HODGES: Right. And we’re aiming for that, if we’re good now then later—
MILLER: Then maybe far into the future I’ll be saved.
MILLER: But I think a central part of living a Christian life involves my willingness, as we see in something like the ordinance of baptism, my willingness to let my death happen early, to be buried in the waters of baptism, to die, and then to begin my new resurrected life before I’ve even left mortality. There’s a very real and important sense in which, as the Book of Mormon prophets like to say, that we have to look forward to Christ as if he had already come, and live our lives as if we had already been saved, so that we can find here and now the kind of redemption that we’ve been looking for, so that we can learn how to live here and now in the presence of God, and not just hope for it at some later date.
HODGES: So in some ways you’re kind of comparing this more to the early Nephites in the Book of Mormon than to the ones who lived after. 3 Nephi 11 Jesus visits the people there and we kind of situate ourselves after that because we come according to the timeline or after that. You’re saying we could relate more to the people before Christ came to the people in the Book of Mormon.
MILLER: Well the bulk of the Book of Mormon is dedicated to those people who lived before Christ’s arrival, and taking them as an example of what it means to live a Christian life, which is ironic because they’re living Christian lives before Christ, before there are any Christians. So in this sense I think the Book of Mormon really models something very important for us about a Christian life the way that we don’t have to wait for Christ to come for Christ to be part of our lives. We don’t have to wait for the next life to live in the presence of God, but that part of what God wants us to shuffle that future salvation into our present experience so that we can be liberated to go about the work of loving and caring for other people, instead of worrying about our own salvation. So you see for instance, in the Book of Mormon, you see the people anticipating Christ’s first coming, and living as if he had already come, but you also see this kind of same problem in the New Testament, for instance, with the apostle Paul, who is trying to educate the Christians to live as though Christ had already come again.
HODGES: Again, yeah.
MILLER: Because either way, whether you were waiting for the First Coming or the Second Coming—
HODGES: You’re still waiting.
MILLER: To live a Christian life is to not live as someone who is waiting but to live as someone who already finds themselves in the full light of that promised redemption.
HODGES: Yeah. There was only the smallest sliver of people who were there temporally with Jesus Christ.
MILLER: And even them, they’re all standing around with Jesus saying, “When is this going to happen?” And Jesus keeps telling them, “This is it. It’s happening right here. The kingdom is right here.”
HODGES: Yeah, yeah. Good. Well thanks Adam, I look forward to talking with you more about that coming up, and I appreciate you taking the time to meet today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
MILLER: My pleasure.
HODGES: As promised at the top of the episode, here’s a special little mini-episode with Janiece Johnson, a research associate in the Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies here at the Maxwell Institute.
BLAIR HODGES: I’m sitting here at the Maxwell Institute with Janiece Johnson. She’s one of the scholars here, currently working under the Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. Janiece, nice to see you.
JANIECE JOHNSON: Hi, Blair. Nice to see you too.
HODGES: The other day we were talking and you were talking about a project that you’re working on and I thought it would be cool for you to tell the listeners a little bit about it, and they might be able to help you out with something.
JOHNSON: Yes, thank you for giving me this opportunity. I am working on as a research associate at the Willes Center. I am working on early Book of Mormon reception history. I am particularly interested in how the Book of Mormon became scripture for early Mormons and one of the things that I’m interested in is seeing the material records, seeing what Books of Mormon tell us about how they used the books.
HODGES: You said “Books of Mormon.” You’re taking a stand on that locution?
JOHNSON: Yes. That is my stand. Books of Mormon.
HODGES: Okay, so you want to see how people are receiving “Books” of Mormon?
JOHNSON: How they receive the Book of Mormon individually, and then—
HODGES: Copies of—
JOHNSON: And then later perhaps, receive multiple Books of Mormon, but as a scholar I need to see multiples to be able to establish and kind of understand how they’re using the text.
HODGES: You mean like really how they’re actually, not just using the text in terms of the words, but even the physical text itself.
JOHNSON: Right, the physical text. Some people I have seen write page numbers in the fly leaves, trying to mark specific things that they want to remember, the format of the book, at least until the late nineteenth century is a narrative. It’s not split up into shorter chapters and verses as we’re used to it. So I’m really interested in what these books could tell us about. One of my stumbling blocks here is that archives generally want to collect pristine copies. Sometimes if a copy is interesting they will collect a copy that has been well-used and loved, but many times they’re looking at collecting pristine copies, and that doesn’t help me so much.
HODGES: Yeah, you can’t really tell how they were using it because there’s no markings.
JOHNSON: Exactly. It hasn’t been used at all. It’s just been sitting on a shelf, that’s why it’s still in pristine shape. So I’m—
HODGES: So if you have one of those, just get rid of it.
JOHNSON: Yeah, no. I’ll take that too. But I am really interested if anyone has family copies that have been in their family from the nineteenth century, so really any copies from the nineteenth century I would be interested in looking at.
HODGES: And this isn’t a purchasing thing. This is like a work of scholarship where you just want to see these copies so you can investigate them.
JOHNSON: I just want to see them and be able to investigate and examine what signs of use are in the book itself. So if any of our listeners out there have an inclination and something lurking on their family bookshelves I would love to see that.
HODGES: Great. Do you recommend they just send you and email? How would you prefer they get ahold of you?
JOHNSON: Just send me an email. You can find my contact info. You might want to be sure you spell my name right. But my contact info is on the Maxwell Institute’s website.
HODGES: You’re also on Twitter as well.
JOHNSON: Yes. I could take messages that way too.
HODGES: What’s your @ on there? I don’t remember.
JOHNSON: It’s just janiecejohnson. I’m not very creative.
HODGES: Well it’s cool that you got that though. You’re lucky. I’d love to have @blairhodges. Alright, well thanks Janiece, it was good talking to you. Hopefully someone can find something of use for you.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
HODGES: And thank you.
P.S. For those of you keeping score at home, this is actually the third interview that Adam’s had on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I wrongly said it was interview number two. We’ll see you next time.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“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.” (D&C 88:118)