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New Harmony: A devotional memoir offers big life lessons

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 16 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Elder Dallin H. Oaks speaks at the Salt Lake Tabernacle during a 2010 general conference address.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

"The best preacher," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "deals his life to the people; life passed through the fire of thought."

That quote came to mind as I was reading the new book by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, "Life's Lessons Learned."

In short chapters (about the length of a newspaper column), Elder Oaks leads us through his life, pointing out the teachings he gleaned along the way. Trained in the law, he writes in formal — but heartfelt — prose. He's as careful with his words as a man gathering eggs. The pieces read like spiritual briefs. And his approach is the classic Book of Mormon approach — share a story and declare "And thus we see."

For clarity, each "lesson learned" is set off at the end of the chapter in bold face type.

But what interests me most here is the form the book takes — the "genre" Elder Oaks opts to use.

He didn't choose fiction.

He didn't choose poetry.

He didn't choose theater.

He chose the "devotional memoir." He chose to "deal his life to the people, passed through the fire of thought."

And the personal memoir, I've come to believe, is the natural form for Mormons.

Years ago, friends and I would argue over which type of writing was best suited to writing about the church. The poets would point to hymn texts and make a claim for poetry. Novelists would single out fine fiction writers like Orson Scott Card. Essayists would hold up the talks and sermons of LDS leaders as examples of the essay.

But I think the most Mormon form of writing has to be "bearing testimony" — personal spiritual experience. (The subtitle of Elder Oaks' book is "Personal Reflections").

The Joseph Smith story is such a devotional memoir, personal experience that speaks of the goodness of God.

The family and personal histories we write, the testimonies we share every first Sunday are devotional memoirs — accounts about our lives where they've been touched by God.

In fact, I think such writing may be the closest mortal souls can ever come to writing scripture — this sharing of our lives shaped by the hand of God.

It's the way Jeremiah wrote.

It's the way Nephi wrote.

It's how Joseph Smith wrote.

And now, in "Life's Lessons Learned," it's how Elder Oaks writes.

Let's hope his "dealing his life to the people, life fired by thought" kindles a trend.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in Mormon Times. Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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