7 Mormon books that changed the conversation in 2014

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Whenever I do one of these “best of” lists I always try to say that it’s impressionistic and not exhaustive. Lord knows I haven’t read all of the Mormon books that have been published this year. But here, in no particular order, are seven 2014 offerings that have stayed with me — books that contributed to, or are even changing the course of, current conversations about Mormon life.

WayBelowAngelsFunniest memoir: Craig Harline’s hilarious, honest, and self-deprecating Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary (Eerdmans) is one of my favorite books of the year.  Harline’s experiences as a Mormon missionary in Belgium in the mid-1970s are ingeniously funny, but they also point to important issues: how religious people deal with apparent failure and navigate grown-up faith after childish certainties have proven inadequate. (Click here for an interview with Craig Harline about how Mormons handle “mission failure.”)

Crucible_of_DoubtGentlest consolation literature: On this blog we spent five weeks reading The Crucible of Doubt (Deseret Book) and discussing it together. I’ve never allotted that much time to a single book before, but that’s how impressed I was by the loving, reflective guide to doubt and Mormon questioning that Terryl and Fiona Givens offered readers. This book (and the many firesides and events related to it) is opening new avenues in how Mormons speak about doubt. The fact that it was released by the Church’s official publishing house is a good sign of greater frankness.


McBaine_Women med sizeMost influential book about women in the Church: It’s been a rough year for Mormon feminists, but for me one bright spot is a growing contingent of moderate voices that are pushing for incremental change. They aren’t advocating for priesthood, but recommending many administrative and policy changes that can empower women without changing doctrine. Neylan McBaine’s book Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (Greg Kofford Books) is breaking ground in this area. As a manual for grassroots change at the local level, I hope it will be read by many who support a stronger role for women even if they aren’t comfortable with more radical change.

9780199346509Grittiest narrative about polygamy: It’s clearly been a banner year in the Harline family, because this absorbing book based on the diaries and letters of 19th-century polygamous wives is by Paula Kelly Harline, who is married to the memoirist Craig. What I liked most about The Polygamous Wives Writing Club (Oxford) was its effort to let ordinary women speak for themselves. These aren’t the women you’ve heard of from church history, the Relief Society presidents and wives of general authorities. These are just ordinary folks for whom plural marriage was often an emotional and financial trial. It’s especially interesting to see how their real-time diaries compare to, say, their end-of-life summations of past events (which are often filtered through rose-colored glasses).

cover-miller-lettersWisest Dear Abby book for Mormon Millennials: Don’t be misled by the hideous cover to this brief epistolary jewel by Miller, a professor in Texas. That old adage about not judging a book by its cover has never been more true, because this series of short letters to a hypothetical young Mormon is outstanding and so worth your time. Arranged around topics like sin, scripture, agency, prayer, and the temple, the book offers friendly guidance from a fellow pilgrim who nimbly balances faith and doubt. I love that it is theologically informed but written accessibly, with a pastor’s heart.

Wrestling the AngelMost pioneering book on Mormon theology:  Does Terryl Givens ever sleep? His new book Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford) is not written for a general audience like The Crucible of Doubt. But if you are up for an enlightening scholarly tour of Mormon beliefs and how they have (or haven’t) changed over time, take the time to read this. Mormons have long staked a claim to having no theology, or at least no creed. This book shows that not only do we have a theology, it is a glorious one.


TheBishop's WifeMost gripping suspense novel: I won’t spend much time on this one since I just ran an author interview about it yesterday, but don’t start reading Mette Ivie Harrison’s new mystery The Bishop’s Wife  (Soho Press) unless you’re prepared to stay up late to finish it. It’s that riveting.

Here’s to looking forward to the second installment of Harrison’s series in 2015 — and a whole new crop of other Mormon books for me to read. Happy New Year!

  • I hope Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany, to be published in February, will make the 2015 list.

  • Brian

    Helmuth Hübener

  • MaleMan

    The article title is in-congruent with the book choices. Most…vast majority of LDS Church member have never heard of most of these books. The author might like them but to say they’ve “changed the conversation” is gross hyperbole. Most aren’t part of any sizable conversations and are on the fringe.

    Several others are however part of “the conversation” but they’re more mainstream and don’t support the over-hyped narrative of a swelling undercurrent of malcontents striving to “fix” the church to match their personal view of the world.

    Happy New Year!

  • Gwyntaglaw

    Good heavens – “MaleMan”? Why not say “DudeBro” and be done with it!

    Are you really saying that if a conversation doesn’t involve you or your like-minded peers that it isn’t a conversation of any significance? That’s really quite an unusual proposition.

    I knew three of these books before I even read Jana Riess’s list, and I’m located so far on the outer fringes of LDS culture that my opportunities to encounter books of this nature by accident are almost non-existent. Yet there they are, on my radar and everything.

    And look! Here you are, being part of a “conversation” and everything!

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  • Kevin LaBarge

    Great choices, may I also recommend “American Crucifixion” by Alex Beam and “The Lost Book of Mormon” by Avi Steinberg.

  • Thanks for the book tips. I was already working my way through Wrestling the Angel and enjoying it, so I added Crucible of Doubt and Polygamous writing club to the queue.

  • Eric Facer

    I echo Kevin’s recommendation of “American Crucifixion.” “A Song for Issy Bradley” is also worthy of consideration.

  • “This book shows that not only do we have a theology, it is a glorious one.”

    If your theology is not Scriptural, then it is not glorious.

    God was never a sinner like us.

    God is not a polygamist.

    Jesus and Lucifer are not brothers.

    God did not have relations with Mary to produce Jesus.

    Jesus is not a polygamist.

    Jesus didn’t shed His blood on the cross so that you could earn your way back to heaven. He died on the cross so you could receive eternal life and know it.

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  • I love the book ‘Way Below the Angels’. We have given that to a few of our nephews and nieces as they have gone out on missions. Can you get the other books listed at any LDS bookstore or is there a specific one that carries them?