My Year In Books, Part One: I'm a Mormon Girl

One of my goals in 2015 was to read more books. I am very happy to report that I finished a total of 18 books and read portions of many more. Considering I read maybe two or three books the previous year, I certainly achieved my goal. This was in large part due to a wonderful Christmas gift I received last year: a Kindle. This allowed me to read much more than I might have otherwise. It also allowed me to purchase many more books that I would have otherwise, leading to one of my New Year's resolutions this year: to not buy any books. I am committing to only reading books I already own or that I check out from the library. Hopefully this resolution will contribute to other goals of simplifying and staying in a budget without restricting my reading too much!   

Each book has become part of me and influenced me in some way and I also intended to write blog posts reviewing each of the books and my reactions, but that didn’t happen. I would still like to record the list and some of my thoughts. I will try to organize the books into broad categories. I hope you enjoy this year in review and decide to pick up some of these books!

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women

    By Sarah Bessey
    Non-Fiction, Religion & Spirituality, Women’s Issues, Christianity

“Many of the seminal social issues of our time - poverty, lack of education, human trafficking, war and torture, domestic abuse - can track their way to our theology of, or beliefs about, women, which has its roots in what we believe about the nature, purposes, and character of God.”

Sarah Bessey's claim is simple, yet radical: Jesus was a feminist.

Sarah uses her own faith journey to explain who she learned to find Christ in what she calls "our walking around life." In that process she came to believe that her feminism stemmed from her faith, from Jesus' message. Much of what she said rang true in my Mormon upbringing as well. I believe in the equality of men and women, not as a reaction against my faith, but because of it.  

Sometimes people ask me why I feel the need to identify as a feminist. The word is divisive, especially in my faith tradition, where its use conjures up images of women who forsake or even attempt to tear down everything we hold dear. Why focus on women, if I claim that feminism means that men and women should have the same rights and opportunities? Sarah Bessey’s answer is a beautiful encapsulation of my strong feelings about using that word and why I feel the need to couple it with my faith and proclaim that I’m a Mormon Feminist.  

“One needn't identify as a feminist to participate in the redemptive movement of God for women in the world, The gospel is more than enough. Of course it is! But as long as I know how important maternal health is to Haiti's future, and as long as I know that women are being abused and raped, as long as I know girls are being denied life itself through selective abortion, abandonment, and abuse, as long as brave little girls in Afghanistan are attacked with acid for the crime of going to school, and until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these things, you can also call me a feminist.”    

Sarah Bessey’s words read like a gloriously joyful song, sung with arms and heart wide open. I was completely drawn in, overwhelmed with Jesus’ grace and love. I felt myself filling up with desire to serve him, not out of fear of any punishment or hope of any reward, but just as the natural consequence of being lavished with so much love. This is a book I plan to read again and again and allow Sarah’s words to bring me closer to my Savior and Friend.

Women At Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact

    By Neylan McBaine
    Non-Fiction, Religion & Spirituality, Women’s Issues, LDS

Deseret Book describes Women at Church as a “practical and faithful guide to improving the way men and women work together at church.” Neylan McBaine has the enviable talent of being able to see and understand why some people feel pain with the way the LDS church is administered while also being able to speak the language of the faithful, traditional membership. In the first half of the book, she explains why some women (and men) struggle with gender in the church. In the second half, she offers suggestions for relieving some of that pain. All of her suggestions are carefully chosen to work within the current guidelines in church handbooks, so leaders can feel comfortable using the ideas they feel inspired to implement.
There are some who don’t think it is our collective responsibility to try to help those who are struggling. There are others who want to call those they don’t agree with apostates or hypocrites. Neylan acknowledges the tense emotions that can come with discussion of gender issues and invites us to try to do more:

“Because we are working in the art of redemption, we all care very deeply. If we were simply trying to offer an amusing social outlet or after-school youth program, we might not care quite so much … But our relationship with the Church is a reflection of our relationship to our faith; although we might cognitively separate the two when it is convenient or needful, the reality is that the way we feel at church impacts the way we feel about our faith."

"Faith, at least the way Mormons approach it, is neither practiced nor cultivated in isolation, and the communal relationships and interactions are the road on which faith finds its way. Despite the fact that we already have dedicated and good-hearted leaders, don’t we want to make the Church experience even better if it is in our power to do so?”

I think everyone in positions of leadership in the LDS church should read this book. If you have ever wondered why some women don’t “feel equal,” you should read this book. If you have ever wondered what you can do to help women who struggle with our gender practices, you should read this book. It is a door-opener, a conversation-starter, and a bridge-builder. What this book is not is the end; it is only the beginning.

While I loved many parts of this book and think it fills a need in our community, I could not shake the feeling that there was more Neylan McBaine could have said, but that she was being very careful to not alienate those the position to make changes. I firmly believe that we (as a church) need more revelation, not more policies, direct from the source (God) concerning women in particular and gender in general. This book is a great stop-gap, a practical, on the ground manual for how to do things now to ease suffering while we are waiting for further light and knowledge.

For a more complete and thorough review, see “Women Exit Quietly,” at the Exponent blog.

The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith

    By Joanna Brooks
Non-Fiction, Biographies & Memoirs, LDS

“You see that? That big messy spiral of people, moving, trying to find God? I ask them, as the exodus unfolds once again on screen. That right there is Zion. Get there however you can.”

For a long time I hated Joanna Brooks. Really. I’m embarrassed about it now, but I did. In my mind she represented a threat to my nice, comfortable religious tradition. I remember a conversation with a friend where we just let loose how much we disliked and even pitied Joanna Brooks. She wasn’t really an insider, we told each other. She hasn’t been through the temple, how could she claim to be a voice for Mormonism? And if there were parts of our culture and tradition that were so painful for her, why didn’t she just leave? Why does she have to try to destroy what the rest of us love so dearly? If she really understood the divinity of womanhood …  

I owe Joanna Brooks a big fat apology. You see, just a few short months after that conversation, my shelf came crashing down. The shelf where I had stored polygamy and all it’s ugly implications, the “patriarchal order” of heaven, my hurt from being excluded from leadership, the promise I made to obey my husband, all the million microaggressions that come with being a woman in this church, and most of all, way there in the back, the empty hole in my soul where my Heavenly Mother wasn’t.

And then I understood what Joanna had been saying all along. I still waited over a year to read her book, refusing to listen to her podcasts or look at her blog. Then my book club announced that we would be reading Book of Mormon Girl.

I was hooked by the first page. I had been so wrong. What I read could have been my story in places. Joanna’s words perfectly captured the beauty and mystery of being raised Mormon. All the things I loved were there.

And the pain too. The confusion, the heartache, the loneliness, they were all there on the page. I found something else familiar there too, a determination and dedication that came with the evolution of faith.       

“I am not the same kind of Mormon girl I was when I was seven, eight, or eighteen years old.  I am not an orthodox Mormon woman like my mother.  I am an unorthodox Mormon woman with a fierce and hungry faith. ”   

I know what it is like to have a “fierce and hungry faith.” Like Joanna, I am not the same kind of Mormon I was. My faith, or what I thought of as my faith was consumed in a fire, until only the really truly permanent things were left. And so when people ask me, “If this or that causes you pain, why do you stay?” I stay, because in the end,

“(Mormonism) "it is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart, my heart, my heart." No one says any of these things.  But they should.”