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

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 9:29 p.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."

What a relief it was, then, when Donny and Marie Osmond appeared on the TV screen, and Joanna could emerge from her family's fearful huddle to commune with the thousands of Mormons who were at the very same moment proudly watching their beautiful and talented fellow-believers perform confidently before the whole world! Marie's splendid, confident example comforts Joanna in her loneliness and validates her Mormon difference.

But her adulation of Marie Osmond also reinforces an unhealthy and perhaps compulsive pre-occupation with overcoming bodily imperfections, a dissatisfaction with and discomfort concerning her own body that runs through much of Brooks' story. This alienation from her body is associated with a strangely dualistic understanding of the gospel in which the spirit's shedding of the body (and not the final reunion of body and spirit into soul) is somehow taken to be a moment of ultimate transcendence. Thus the young Joanna saw her own body as a "cold" and "inert" burden, considered the natural processes of generation and birth with "awe and horror," and sought some world view that would make her feel "in control," in the driver's seat.

She finds such a world view in the feminism of certain of her teachers at BYU in the early 1990s, and embraces these and other heroic "liberals" and "intellectuals" without reserve. From this point on young Joanna regards all her past Mormon experience as darkness itself. She is alienated from the church when her heroes are "purged" (actually, fail to get tenure, in some cases flagrantly court excommunication, etc.), and spends years at the margins of church activity, finally leaving altogether and eventually marrying a Jewish man.

After a season, she is moved by her grandmother's death and by concern for her daughters to come back to church. But alas, her timing is cursed, for the controversy surrounding Proposition 8 is about to sweep through the state and through Brooks' life.

It must be said that there is never a moment, according to her own account, in what Brooks calls her "life of searching inquiry," when it occurs to her to question the authority of the "feminism" (never really defined or defended) that she embraced so enthusiastically as a young BYU student. From this point on, she will not only assume the compatibility of all things feminist with some true, if elusive, ethical core of Mormonism, but she will in fact strive tirelessly to interpret Mormonism according to the absolute and unquestioned truth of feminism, liberalism and progressivism. The core of this new enlightened ethic is an ideal of equality Brooks associates with the scriptural words "all are alike unto God"(2 Nephi 26); this ideal seems to become the single and pure source of all religious and moral truth for her.

Of course there would seem to be an obvious problem in reconciling a feminism that understands equality between men and women with sameness (or the abolition of "gender roles" which, as she must have learned from her professors, are not grounded in nature or eternal destiny but merely "social constructions") with the church's teaching in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." It seems that Brooks can only hope for the church's teaching to "progress" beyond the Family Proclamation.

Needless to say, Brooks abominates the church's vigorous and well-organized effort in California to defend traditional marriage, an effort she is perfectly sure is reducible to the now oft-diagnosed syndrome of "homophobia": "I feel as if my heart has been thrown to the concrete and a cinderblock dropped on it," she reports. Here again Brooks' capacity for "searching enquiry" meets its limits; she is perfectly confident that all arguments against same-sex marriage are mindless propaganda, and that concerns about threats to religious freedom are "a blatant falsehood." The skepticism Brooks applies to religious orthodoxy and to the church's political concerns is nowhere to be found where her own political orthodoxy is concerned.

Beneath the bluster, however, the reader can perceive in Brooks' autobiographical account moments of self-doubt and thus of openness to a truth above her own passionate political commitments. The teachings of Brooks' parents have not lost all their force. What stands in her way of a commitment to the teachings of her childhood is an unshakeable faith in "liberalism" and "feminism" in the radical forms in which these are now understood by her generation. From her early days at BYU, Brooks has been powerfully attracted by the possibility of a Mormonism that would be fully compatible with a practically limitless application of the idea of equality or non-discrimination. She has hoped that the statement "all are alike unto God" might become by itself the touchstone of all religious and political truth, thus making it possible to avoid the choice between, on the one hand, accepting the Lord's invitation "to come unto him and partake of his goodness" and, on the other, embracing a limitless "tolerance" that shades into relativism.

In a recent interview in which her charm, generosity and winning sense of humor were fully in evidence, Joanna Brooks acknowledged, with some sadness in her voice, that she had not embraced the full blessings of the gospel to which we gain access through temple ordinances.

"But life is long — who knows?" she added, poignantly.

Let us wish her a long life.

Ralph C. Hancock (Ph.D., Harvard) is professor of political science at Brigham Young University, where he teaches the history of political philosophy as well as contemporary political theory. He is also the president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His most recent book is "The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age."

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