In 2003, when Jon Krakauer published “Under the Banner of Heaven” about fundamentalist, I heard a lot of chatter about the fox having slipped into the henhouse.
Since then, we've had the bicentennial of Joseph Smith, "The Book of Mormon" musical and Mitt Romney's presidential run. The henhouse has now become a summer home for foxes.
Every few months a fresh book about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hits the market, most claiming to set the record straight.
Some of the books are drier than Melba toast. Some just trouble the water. Some, like Alex Beam’s new “American Crucifixion,” court the best-seller list by showcasing sex, betrayal and the mysteries of murder.
For the most part, these books are professional, well-researched and dry-eyed.
And, for the most part, they hit wide of the mark.
It was the late Truman Madsen who said when secular writers examine spiritual experience, they grasp everything except the spiritual experience. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, they see only the needles, not the magnetism.
As a result, the only motive that makes sense to secular writers is self-interest, or delusion. Yet LDS history overflows with examples of sane people acting against self-interest. Joseph returning from the territories to be slain, the rescuers heading off to Martin’s Cove. Examples have filled histories.
That is the spiritual part of the story — the élan that so many writers today miss.
Who will forget Elder Jeffrey R. Holland standing at the podium at general conference with a priceless Book of Mormon in his hand (see "Safety for the Soul," October 2009). He told of the potshots that modern expositors had taken at the book. And yet, he said, it has thrived — it was still altering lives.
That’s the question that befuddles the naysayers.
As I motor around on the Internet, looking at blogs, websites and comment boards where people talk about Mormons, I find a prevailing sense that “once the word gets out” — once the foibles and flaws and underlying motives are brought to light — the LDS Church will fold up like a homemade canoe.
But it never happens.
As in the days of Joseph Smith, critics claim they’ve taken the legs out from under faith and religion, but faith and religion walk on. They claim the hard light of science will shrivel the church like cut flowers in the sun. But the church continues to put down roots and send out leaves.
When Krakauer wrote his book, he saw the title “Under the Banner of Heaven” as ironic, as tongue-in-cheek.
But Mormons don’t do irony very well. What they’re good at is earnestness. And they wear the banner of heaven with determination as they march along. They feel the magnetism flowing through them.
That’s the “spiritual” part of the spiritual experience that secular writers never quite get.
Mormonism is more than a sum of its parts.
It’s what you can see and more.
But in trying to understand that, many writers today are like the guy who gazes at a rose in a bell jar, hoping to catch a whiff of its scent.