Book review: Confessions of Joanna, or towards a Mormonism Lite

By Ralph C. Hancock

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 5 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

According to her own self-description, "Joanna Brooks is a national voice on Mormon life and politics and an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture."

An increasingly influential writer with a flair for publicity, her "reform" Mormonism represents for many in the media and certain Latter-day Saints the possibility of a reconciliation between Mormonism and our secular culture that would relieve many uncomfortable cultural and political tensions.

According to an old feminist adage, "the personal is political."

This is certainly the case for Professor Brooks, author of "The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith." Her narrative is, on the one hand, a touching and intimate account of one girl's, and then one woman's, deeply personal experience. Like St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great models of the intimate personal confession as a genre for changing hearts and minds, Brooks seeks to indicate a path towards illumination and authenticity through a narration of her own life.

Brooks' conflicted confession is important precisely because it clarifies for us a choice we all must face at some level, a choice that is becoming starker and more urgent for the rising generation. This is the choice between: 1. a politicized, "unorthodox" Mormonism Lite, a Mormonism streamlined in order to remove any obstacle to the increasingly ascendant secular ethic of boundless individual autonomy; and 2. the restored gospel, with its wondrous teaching concerning our eternal destiny as males and females, and its clearly marked path of obedience to laws and ordinances.

Because she recounts a genuine personal experience (with more than a few arresting poetic touches), many LDS readers will identify with at least some aspects of Brooks' account of the blessings and challenges of growing up Mormon. But her tale is also deeply, pervasively political.

Brooks has a political agenda — or, to be more precise, a political-religious agenda, since her outlook on what is true and good is profoundly conditioned by a progressive-liberal-feminist political project, a project that requires a fundamental re-interpretation of the religion her parents taught her.

Brooks' early life is a decidedly, distinctly Mormon life, beginning with a thoroughly, almost archetypal Mormon childhood. But the author is by no means satisfied with an ordinary Mormon life but seeks instead a new, expansive and exciting way of being Mormon. Just as the 18th century French philosopher Rousseau in his "Confessions" exposed his own, hardly exemplary personal life to the public in order to win converts for his idea of humanity's natural goodness, so Brooks uses what appears to be a quite unguarded autobiography to make the case for a new Mormonism, a faith unhindered by any orthodoxy and fully open to an ethic based purely on the equal freedom of all individuals.

Many of Brooks' early memories will be immediately familiar to those of us who were raised Mormon in the American West in the latter part of the 20th century, including fundamentals like her parents' teaching her about the plan of salvation, and quirky details concerning emergency preparation and object-lessons in chastity. Brooks was indeed born to "goodly parents" who seem to have spared no effort to prepare their bright daughter for a good life, apparently in every respect a model Mormon family.

And yet a note of insecurity and defensiveness in the Brooks family emerges early in Brooks' account. Clinging to the symbolic rod of iron, she and her father both live under the shadow of a "terrible danger," "huddled together" and surrounded by "mocking crowds like faceless laugh-tracks of sit-com television threatening oblivion."

They were certainly good Mormons, but not, at least in Joanna's account, very happy Mormons. Their belonging together is always set against a hostile background and informed by a keen, almost desperate sense of being "the only people who believed as we believed."

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