New Harmony: Book shows what makes Mormons tick

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Sometimes, when you get a mouthpiece, you catch a break. You get a good one.

Samuel Johnson got James Boswell.

John Thomas Scopes got Clarence Darrow.

And when Random House decided to publish a major book about the Latter-day Saints, they picked Matthew Bowman — a Davis County boy — to do it.

And Mormons caught a break as well.

"The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith" is not a whitewash, a sanitized "Life of the Saints." But it's not an exposé, either. It is, to my mind, just what the doctor ordered: a dry-eyed, often affectionate, examination of what it means to be a Mormon in 2012. Bowman doesn't sidestep controversy. But he doesn't sensationalize it, either. He simply tries to understand it. He wants to show what makes Mormons tick.

Bowman spoke about his book to a small group at the Bountiful Barnes & Noble last week. He said where most histories of the Saints spend the bulk of the book talking about the 19th century, he flipped things on its head.

Most of Bowman's book is about Mormonism in the 20th and 21st centuries. He talks about the "Eternal Progression" years (1890-1945), the "Correlation" years (1945-1978) and "Toward a Global Church" (1978-2011).

He said Random House gave him just a few months to write the thing. But it was an offer he couldn't refuse. Fortunately, he had read most of the source material beforehand.

There will be a few "revelations" for members of the faith, though most practicing Mormons will be acquainted with 90 percent of the material. What sets Bowman's book apart is the way the author carefully stitches things together. He covers a lot of ground — from the dawning of a brighter day to Stephenie Meyer's novel "Twilight."

The Book of Mormon gets its due, and so does "The Book of Mormon" musical.

We learn about both Brigham Young and Steve Young.

The publishers call the book "a frank and fair-minded demystification of a faith that remains a mystery for many."

I think that's a frank and fair-minded assessment.

At the bookstore event, I asked Bowman if the Mormons, with their mind-bending theology coupled to their practical, can-do, hands-on style, were befuddling to people.

He said they were. But, he said, the best way to battle befuddlement is with growth. He pointed out that Catholicism and its rituals once troubled other Americans, until Catholics became such a large cross section of the American culture they were simply grafted in.

If the number of LDS members continues to grow, Bowman feels such will be the case with Mormons. They will, in time, become a major facet of American culture itself.

The thinking sounds right to me.

But then Bowman's thinking in "The Mormon People" often carries an aura of common sense.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears every other week in Mormon Times.

Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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