Mormon Media Observer: New Yorker disappoints in its LDS coverage

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 3:18 p.m. MDT

Just as World War II ended, one of America's greatest reporters, John Hersey, went into Hiroshima and reported on the frightening effects of the atomic bomb.

The resulting article was published in August 1946 in the New Yorker, just one year after the bombing.

The article filled the entire issue of the magazine, which sold out within hours. The article was among the most important news stories ever written. Students still read the story in book form in high school today.

Indeed, a group of journalists and scholars in 1999 selected Hiroshima as the most important piece of journalism of the 20th century.

This famous article is only one reason I celebrate New Yorker magazine, arguably the best-written magazine in history. In graduate study in journalism, most students read and analyze the work of writers like Richard Preston, E.B. White, James Thurber and Malcolm Gladwell, all of which appeared in the New Yorker.

The New Yorker is often held up as an ideal of what journalism can be — and it often is. Witty cartoons; detailed, thoughtful reviews and profiles; and first-rate journalism all comprise this excellent magazine.

That's why I have been so frustrated with the New Yorker lately because of an article about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that appeared there by staff writer Adam Gopnik.

I meant to write about this article when it came out in mid-August, but much has happened in the interim that merited quicker attention, but I wish to wait no longer.

Now, Gopnik's piece seemed well-enough intentioned. If you listen to the associated podcast about the article, Gopnik has a gentle and generous tone, so I don't assert any deliberate hatchet job. Furthermore, some of the 5,000 words made interesting points about the church.

But the article had severe problems.

First, for me, was his conclusion that the way we Latter-day Saints became assimilated into some American mainstream was by following the American dream of becoming wealthy. Some quotes:

"Joseph Smith’s strange faith has become a denomination within the bigger creed of commerce."

"... Almost every American religion sooner or later becomes a Gospel of Wealth. Forced into a corner by the Feds, Young’s followers put down their guns and got busy making money."

"... Here the people ... hold its (this gospel of commerce's) perfection as a faith so gleaming and secure and unbreakable that it might once have been written down somewhere by angels, on solid-gold plates."

To glibly make commerce the essence of the modern Mormon journey, as Gopnik says, is a terrible stereotype and not in any way the Latter-day Saint life I perceive my neighbors live nor the doctrine my leaders or my scriptures teach.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Gopnik's 5,000 words includes a lot about the Book of Mormon that bothered me.

To be sure, I am always grateful when anyone reads the Book of Mormon or tries to talk about it. And Gopnik does discuss it in a few interesting ways — which is progress. Still, he made some points that deeply disappoint:

First is his assertion of the role of the Book of Mormon in LDS life:

"Some holy texts, the Gospels, for instance, are evangelical instruments meant to convert people who read them; others are sacred objects meant to be venerated. The Book of Mormon is a book of the second sort."

This is opposite of my LDS experience. In every missionary discussion I know, we invite people to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it — reading is key.

Indeed, among the many compelling things about the Book of Mormon in LDS life is that its role seems to be growing in our lives. I know of scholars who have observed that some early LDS sermons didn't speak much of the Book of Mormon, implying it wasn't as important to speakers then as it is now.

And it is important. I know a man who reads the Book of Mormon about three times a year. I've read it at least once a year for many years. Many youths rise at 5 in the morning to go to seminary and study it. My children read it before bed many nights.

The point is that I know no serious Latter-day Saint who treats the Book of Mormon like a 200-year-old shelf relic for veneration.

As literature, true, the Book of Mormon isn't like a fantasy-adventure page-turner. But as profound collection of stories, few pieces of literature compare. Almost every day, I find myself pondering the experiences of the Book of Mormon. Like an onion unfolding, new details emerge through pondering, and the stories grow in ways that change life.

But here is my biggest problem with Gopnik — Gopnik is too quick to dismiss Joseph Smith. He wrote:

"Scholarly opinion on Smith now tends to divide between those who think that he knew he was making it up and those who think that he sincerely believed in his own visions."

Next, see how Gopnik seems to assume — that Joseph Smith wasn't telling the truth when he said he translated the Book of Mormon:

"Smith mimicked the endless, generation-counting longueurs of the Old Testament so skillfully that he rendered the book dead as literature while giving it credibility as a sacred text: a book as boring as this could have been inspired only by the breath of God."

His stance is most obvious — and I resent Gopnik's adjective fundamentalist — when he says the LDS Church is like "any fundamentalist community that provides comfort and meaning if you’re prepared to park your critical intelligence in the lot outside the church door."

That's the biggest trouble — and biggest hurdle to journalists writing about Latter-day Saints — there is a third alternative they too glibly reject besides fraud and delusion at some supposed core of the LDS faith.

Maybe this man, Joseph Smith, didn't give up his life for a self-delusion. Maybe he didn't die for a fraud. Maybe he was telling the truth and went to his death with courage because he knew it was true.

For us who have worked for years to understand the Book of Mormon and the life of Joseph Smith, we aren't faking when we say, we find it to be true in ways that are deep and literal.

That story of the implications of a uniquely held truth among the Latter-day Saints is one that really needs to be told.

I love the New Yorker, but Gopnik's piece, even if well-intentioned, really missed the mark.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion and religion and politics.

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