Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: History is made of individual biographies. It is the work of the biographer to capture the principles that make that history possible. Sheri Dew is the Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer of Deseret Management Corporation. She's a best-selling author and the biographer for three presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today, Sheri Dew discusses her latest biography, "Insights From a Prophet's Life: Russell M. Nelson," on this episode of "Therefore, What?"
"Therefore, What?" is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is "Therefore, What?"
Sheri, welcome to "Therefore, What?" We're focused today on biographies of world religious leaders. We were down in Uruguay late last year with Sergio Rubin, who is the biographer of Pope Francis. And you have been the biographer for three presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and you had a chance to meet Sergio Rubin down in Uruguay. What an amazing man. And I want to start just with the interesting connection there, because here it was just five months later, and you had Pope Francis and President Russell M. Nelson actually meeting together in the Vatican. First, tell me a little bit, just kind of the interaction there with Sergio Rubin and then let's set dive into what it means to be the biographer of a world religious leader.
Sheri Dew: I was absolutely fascinated to watch Mr. Rubin interview President Russell M. Nelson. He was smart, respectful, but asked probing questions. I think he really wanted to know how this world religious leader felt about things, how things operate in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I thought he was a total pro, and I loved watching him operate, as it were, and just seeing how he went about trying to find out the true distinctions, it seemed to me, between his background in the Catholic Church and then President Nelson's background.
BM: I thought it was interesting that one of the things that Sergio Rubin commented on after he had interviewed President Nelson was that he felt that both President Nelson and Pope Francis had this very unique gift of wanting to be close to the people.
SD: Yes, close to the people. And when we were watching, we were there together and we were watching it and we had seen President Nelson do that. I mean, two nights before we'd seen him in an audience where afterwards he came down to greet some of the dignitaries who had come to hear him speak and then before he could make his way out of the hall, how many children — it's like they rushed the stage right? And practically knocked him over. It was kind of cute to watch security trying to figure out what do I do with all these children that are now attacking the president of the church? What do you do, right?
But we had just observed this and again, after several days on an international trip we had seen that that is absolutely true. And we could tell from what we've observed from Pope Francis as well as what his biographer was saying that that's absolutely part and parcel of who Pope Francis appears to be. He wants to be by the people. And so they did seem to connect in a beautiful way talking about that very essence of why that's so important in a leader in a religion.
BM: It was very interesting after the meeting between the two in the Vatican in Rome, as we stood outside there and had a chance to listen to what happened, President (M. Russell) Ballard said that they were friends at the first word and ended with a brotherly embrace. Again, as a biographer, what do you think it was that made that connection so special, where it wasn't like it was a head of state. Heads of state typically get 15 or 20 minutes with the pope. This was a meeting of well over 30, 35 minutes. Why do you think there was that unique connection?
SD: Well, you and I didn't get to be in the room when that meeting took place. But we did get to hear immediately as President Nelson and President Ballard came out afterwards, and one of the things that struck me was the tremendous respect that President Nelson and President Ballard clearly evidenced for Pope Francis. And I wondered if part of what we were experiencing or hearing about them experiencing was this shared reality of the fact that they had parishioners all over the world for whom they care deeply, principles that they espouse and teach constantly, and if they just sort of related — again we didn't get to see it, we're trying to understand what really took place. But that's what it felt like to me, is maybe they've had some absolute common ground because they really do care about the people and they care about the Lord.
BM: So I want to dive into this whole process of biography. It's been said that a good biography is neither a voyeuristically-hovering exercise nor a mind-numbing kind of sequential list of events, and that it can't be preachy or pushy, that it can't create a feeling of less than in the reader — you know, I'm a loser because this person is so amazing that you're doing the biography on. The great biographies create this insight within the story that really takes care of itself. You've done biographies on world religious leaders, as you've been involved in this very unique work, "Insights in a Prophet's Life" about President Russell M. Nelson. How did you approach it? Because you did this a little different.
SD: This one was different than some other things that I've done. And by the way, let's just go on the record as saying, I know some fine biographers, and I'm not one of them. I know people who are far more talented than I. I do understand the process. And part of the process of a biography, going back to an earlier question, is to just say how do you really understand what the essence of a person is that you depict? And how do you, as the biographer, get out of the way and let their story tell themselves. Now with President Nelson, we had an interesting dilemma because an official biography was written of him 15 or so years ago. So when he became president of the church, there had already been this very important documentation of his life. But there was a pretty big gap at the end of his life where some very important things had taken place. And now he's president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and people are wanting to read about him in a different way than they would have 15 years earlier.
And as we looked at that, frankly, we and I'm now involving Deseret Book as the publisher, weren't quite sure what to do. And finally the idea occurred, he's had so many amazing experiences in his life, and they're insightful. Every time you hear him tell a story, whether it's as a world famous heart surgeon, or in some of the work he's done as an ecclesiastical leader in the church, you hear him tell a story and you think, wow, it's just filled with insight. And that's where the idea came to say, well, maybe instead of a traditional biography that's chronological in nature and starts at the beginning and goes through to the end. Maybe we tell the stories that document his life and let the insights pop out to you, the reader.
BM: Yeah. And I want to drill down a little bit because I know during this process, that you agonized over, as you were telling those stories you had originally talked about calling out some of those insights at the end of the chapter. You put a lot of work into that. And then in the end you took them out.
SD: I took them out. Because when I went back and I looked at these amazing accounts, these episodes in his life, and here's the little insight at the bottom and honestly, it just sounded like a really bad Sunday School lesson. I thought, oh, this is just awful. And then I thought, somebody else's insight that they derive from this episode is going to be different. Let them get their own insight, have their own inspirational experience by reading about his life and pull out of it what they will. Don't get in the way. Again, don't get in the way of letting his story tell itself. Just present the story and then get out of the way, because that's where the power is. It's not in some amazing skilled writing. You don't actually want to draw attention to the writing. You just want the story to tell itself.
BM: And actually I thought that was maybe the greatest tribute to President Nelson in the writing, was that you did get out of the way and you created space for the reader to receive their own revelation about the insight or the principle, which is so indicative of President Nelson.
SD: What I said in the introduction was that if something was included, it means that I found some insight in it. That's as much of myself as I wanted to insert, because the biographer does have to be the one that selects. If I think back, for example, to writing a biography of President Ezra Taft Benson. He was a secretary of agriculture in Dwight D. Eisenhower's cabinet for eight years. There are rooms full of stuff about him. Not to mention his decades of service as an ecclesiastical leader, we would say a prophet, seer and revelator, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There's roomfuls of stuff. So the biographer has this very difficult challenge of saying, of everything that exists about him that documents his life, what are you actually going to tell? What is actually important to make sure that the reader gets a sense of who this person is and what he cares about and what he's devoted his life to? And can we, and I think you see this in the life of a religious leader, I think you see the hand of God touching their lives and helping shape them and mold them and get them ready for the time when they are going to lead a large organization of members all over the world.
BM: So let's drill down a little bit on that leadership component. Again, you've been the biographer for three world religious leaders, and they each have their own talents, their own skills. We live in an age where leadership is really lacking, whether that's in business or in politics or government. What are some of the leadership lessons you've learned in looking at the lives of these prophets, seers and revelators?
SD: One of the things that strikes me about this, and I'm not sure this is what you're looking for, but one of the things that has struck me is people will say to me all the time, especially in the past, they've said, well, you wrote the biography of Ezra Taft Benson and of Gordon B. Hinckley. How are they different? That is such an uninspired question. Of course they're different. They have different parents, they were raised in different places, they have different talents, they went to different schools. Yeah, they're way different. What's way more interesting to me is how they're alike. They're alike in that they are filled with faith. And you see the Lord, I think, putting them in situations where they had the opportunity to either turn on their faith or build it. And they always choose to build it. They always choose to choose faith and in the process to build their faith as they work through whatever problems come their way. You see them helping others do that and you see leadership, their styles are different.
Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, Russell M. Nelson, those are three very distinctive and unique men, but they all care about others more than themselves. They're looking for the greater good. So they're making decisions based on what will be good for you and for me, not for them. Also, in this case, as religious leaders, I think it about all the time, there's nothing in this for them. They're not getting rich, they're not getting famous, they're not getting anything. They're trying to say how can we discern the Lord's will? How can we help map out a path for the members of the church that would help them live happier, more productive, more meaningful lives? It's always focused outward. So that's one of the huge leadership lessons is they're focused out, not in.
BM: So tell me a little bit from President Nelson's standpoint. When he went to school it was, you know, you don't touch the human heart, right? You'll be disbarred, banned, discredited. And then this unique thing of these researchers, all these people who were trying to figure it out, where again in the world today it's look out for No. 1, win at any cost, win over people rather than with. What did you learn in looking at that portion of his life in preparation?
SD: I'll tell you, it was actually a story associated with this that I think led me to think about the idea of insights, because when he told me the story, I just thought it was profound. So here he goes from being told in the University of Utah medical school, you cannot touch the human heart. And then he's now gone to do his residency and his internship at the University of Minnesota and suddenly finds himself on the team building the first heart-lung machine in the world. How do you go from being told don't touch the heart to saying, hey, let's build a heart-lung machine? And he said something interesting. He said, Oh, I've just always been curious. Well, that curiosity led him to be truly one of the pioneering heart surgeons in the world. And he goes forward, he does the first open heart surgery in Utah. And he's a part of this little teeny group of surgeons that are trying to figure it out. Imagine they're opening up hearts and they don't know what to do. They're trying to figure out how you save lives. And they did save lives and they lost lives in those early days. They had both experiences. He tells the story, though, and this is when the insight thing I thought, Wow, he said that they would go in those early days to these medical conferences, and this little group of surgeons would huddle and share everything they were learning. What was working, what wasn't, what had they discovered about cleanliness, about making sure that operating room was perfect, about procedural issues. What had they discovered? And I remember saying to him, So you shared everything you were learning, you weren't worried about getting the first patent or getting written up in medical textbooks saying that you pioneered such a process? You just openly shared those things? And he said, Oh, yes, he said. Our competition wasn't with each other. Our competition was with death, disease and ignorance.
And you want to talk about leadership and caring about the greater good. Here you have these men, and women too, but I think in that day and age, it honestly was mostly men, and they're looking out to say, How can we save more lives? I had a profound experience for me. This is in 2015, I believe, when the University of Utah Medical Center celebrated then President Nelson, he was president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the church, and it was the 60th anniversary of the first open heart surgery in Utah. And they were honoring him. So I was invited to attend this event at the U. Heart surgeons, cardiac surgeons from around the country had flown in to honor this early pioneer. And he gets up and he talks about, in doctor language, by the way, he talks about everything they were discovering and how it happened and all this sort of thing. And I mean, this audience was glued. There were several hundred cardiac surgeons there. The person who conducted was, as I remember, head of cardiothoracic surgery at the Mayo Clinic, and he had flown in to honor Dr. Nelson. And he stood up and said, You know, today, open heart surgery is just not that big a deal. We know what's going to happen. We know how to do it. And he said, but that was not the case with a young Dr. Nelson. They were having to figure out everything that we now take so for granted. Well, one of the interesting things was at the end, that group of very distinguished doctors, they didn't rush the stage necessarily, but they all headed up because they all wanted their picture taken with him. And one of the great pictures is this huge group of surgeons just crowding around, wanting to have an association with someone who had paved the way for them. But I go back and say there must have been an amazing unselfishness in those early days. Our competition isn't with each other. When do you ever see that today?
BM: That's right. Excellence never has to call attention to itself. We could use a lot of that in the world today. Let's talk about another leadership component, again, insights, I think, from President Nelson and from others. So much of what we see today is so scrubbed, you know, everything is poll-tested and consultant-certified. And, you know, you've had 27 focus groups and 800 meetings. But President Nelson has a little different approach in terms of leadership. He doesn't seem to look at it as either it's him coming in and just declaring it. Tell me a little bit more about his leadership style as a world religious leader.
SD: I have had those who sit in meetings with him and in counsel with him frequently say that he is one of the brightest men they've ever met, but also one of the most collaborative and most gracious. He wants to hear what everybody in the room has to say. And I've experienced that myself actually, sometimes being called upon to make presentations of different kinds to him and to his counselors who comprise the First Presidency. I saw it, in fact, just the other day where after making the presentation, one by one, President Nelson is directing around the room, there were probably seven or eight other individuals in the room, and he wanted to know what every single one of them had to say. And before he spoke, he wanted to hear everybody else. And that led him to ask for the questions about the proposal in front of them and I just witnessed myself the collaborative nature of saying, Look, if you're in this room, I think you have something to add. I want to know what you think. And then it's a matter of gathering the information, but we would say in our culture a lot that good information proceeds inspiration. Then you can almost see the process of the First Presidency really trying to discern, based upon what they had just heard, discern not just what they thought was the best idea, but what would God have them do. And that's probably the pattern that I have seen the most. And from all these leaders with whom I've associated closely, they gather information, they want to know, and they're bright and they're savvy, and they do know. They travel the world and have for decades, this is a very bright, experienced, accomplished, informed group of individuals. But when all is said and done, they're not trying to figure out what's our best idea. They're trying to do their homework and then take their best thinking to the Lord and saying, Please guide us and help us know what the Lord would have us do.
BM: Yeah, I think if there's one thing that people who have been watching just over the last year plus, in the time that President Nelson has been president. I believe it was Elder (Jeffrey R.) Holland who said, you know, this rush of revelation that's kind of hurting all of our hearts and causing us all to try to you know, gasp and keep up with the prophet. Some people have looked at that and never really seen or felt so part of the process or had a prophet be so open in terms of revelation and how that comes to him and how that happens. We know that Sister (Wendy) Nelson has shared some very tender and very personal insight. Just this last weekend, CNN picked up on that and ran an article in their online piece, their religion writer, that both praised that but also criticized that, or at least questioned, in terms of, you know, is he just trying to shore up a man-made decision by declaring it as revelation? Some people say that doesn't leave anyone any room to think for themselves if you declare it revelation. Give us your insight on that. How do you see his use of revelation, and what is he really challenging the members around the world to do?
SD: You know, I think that what he's doing is completely consistent. Again, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regard the president of the church as their prophet in the same sense that those who lived in ancient days and Old Testament days would have regarded Moses as a prophet and Elijah as a prophet. So that is how we see him. And the interesting thing about this is he has been quite open in indicating the conversation, gathering the information with those that we regard as prophets, seers and revelators is the phrase that we would use. So he's been very open about that. But it's following the pattern that we see in the Old and New Testament. It's not any different than that, where you do see men who we believe are called of God declaring the will of God. That's what a prophet does.
And it's interesting because, by the way, I thought that CNN article was pretty interesting. And I thought that writer got a lot right. And some of his interpretation was probably different. But I think it's always difficult to parachute into a new culture, a new religious culture, and they're never going to say it exactly like we would say it and we wouldn't expect them to, right? I'm sure that for some people in the world today that the whole notion of somebody declaring the mind and will of God just seems maybe crazy, or at least like a whole new idea. But again, if you happen to be a believer in God, if you believe in the Bible and the New Testament, and have drawn some truths from there, then this doesn't seem terribly inconsistent. And the interesting thing is for those who might be saying, Yeah, but when he says it's revelation, where does that leave me? Do I have to like, take it or leave it? You go back to, I think it's the book of Numbers. You'll have to check me on this. But you've got Moses who is saying, Would that all the people were prophets. We want all the people to receive revelation. Every president of the church that I can think of is constantly inviting, pleading with the members of the church to basically go seek their own confirming revelation. So yes, the responsibility of the prophet is to declare the mind and will of the Lord and to lead his people, but they don't expect any of us to just not go to the Lord ourselves and get our own confirmation that what we've just heard is, in fact, true.
And to me, that's the wonderful combination. I don't want the prophet to get up and say, You know, we had a really smart discussion, we had a really great focus group, and we came up with some really great ideas and let's test this. That's not to me what a prophet would do. I love it when he declares that he and the other leaders in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are of one mind and one heart about a certain direction. But then it's my job to go ask the Lord if that's right, and to get my own confirming revelation. We believe in revelation. That's something we believe in.
BM: Yeah. And I don't know that there's ever been a president of the church who has challenged the membership worldwide to do more. I want to read just a couple of things from his very first Sunday after being sustained as the prophet in the church's general conference last April, and I'm going to read just a couple of lines from his address, and then I just want you to respond to those on what you think that means for us. He said, I urge you to stretch beyond your current spiritual ability to receive personal revelation. In coming days it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting and constant influence of the Holy Ghost. My beloved brothers and sisters, I plead with you to increase your spiritual capacity to receive revelation.
SD: Don't you love that? Here's what I love about that. The man I believe is a prophet is telling me I believe you can do it, Sheri. And Boyd, I believe you can do it, but I need you to work at it. So he's telling me it's possible, he thinks I can do it, and that I can increase my spiritual capacity. And I love that phrase. Because in a world of very noisy opinions, you can find an opinion to support any point of view, any hour of the day, on any continent, in any language. And he's saying, you can learn, you can increase your spiritual capacity so you can learn spiritually to be sharp enough, and to be receptive enough that you can go straight to heaven and ask for help. And so what that also tells me is God will talk to me. I love that.
BM: I think there are many people around the world, there a lot of very exhausted people on the planet, for the very reasons you just laid out. You can get an opinion on anything at any moment. And I think there's a lot of people who are just really weary. Some people, I think, after reading the CNN article, thought, OK, yeah, maybe it does sound different. Do I really want someone to tell me what God wants? But I also think there are people out there who may just have that notion, who may be really exhausted and think well, wow, if there is such a man on the planet, who's up in the middle of the night getting the will of God and writing it down on a yellow pad, maybe that means that God still is interested in the world. And if God's interested in the world, he might just be interested in me. Is that part of the message?
SD: I think it's a huge part of the message. And I think there's also another element to it and that is, he's not only interested in me, he's interested in what's happening in my life and in everybody else's life because God loves his children and he knows his children. All the noise today can create such a feeling of being unsettled and even fearful that to me, the clarion call of a prophet gives such confidence to a regular person like me to say, OK, I have a spiritual leader that I can follow with confidence, but he's also telling me that you develop your own spiritual muscles so you can go to heaven yourself. You can appeal to your Heavenly Father yourself and get answers for yourself. And that double-barreled spiritual protection is, to me, just the greatest antidote to fear and to a lack of peace.
BM: A couple of things, just as we come down the homestretch here. You know I'm the master of the false finish so don't think you're done. You talked about this arc of looking at the lives of these men, ordinary men, who become world religious leaders, who take on this mantle. One of the elements in the book is this instant where President Nelson is taking some notes at a meeting and he has this impression that he needs to learn Chinese. What did you see in that arc of his life, in terms of he really worked at getting better at receiving revelation and promptings and insight. What are some of the things you saw in that arc?
SD: So one of the interesting things here, there are a number of examples from his life, many examples from his life, some of them in the operating room with somebody's chest cut open, where he literally didn't know what he was going to do as he walked in. But he'd been pleading and praying for help to know what to do and actually had phrases and words come into his mind and images come into his mind about where to put sutures and how to actually fix something. So that's one kind of thing. This example that you're referencing here is actually a perfect example of the fact that he as a very skilled, very smart, world famous in his craft man, was at a meeting where the prophet said we ought to learn to speak Mandarin. And so he goes home and says to his wife, do you want to learn to speak Mandarin with me? I didn't hear President Spencer W. Kimball, who the prophet was at the time, I didn't hear him say, Well, everybody but Russell M. Nelson should learn Mandarin, he said, he thinks we should learn Mandarin and he started learning Mandarin. And it wasn't but a few months that he found himself in a professional meeting in Boston, where he ended up sitting next to a prominent surgeon, a medical colleague from China, and he was amazed that he knew a few words by then in Mandarin and so forth. It ended up with invitations to go to mainland China to teach open heart surgery. He helped lots of surgeons there learn how to do some of the procedures he had been pioneering. And it all started because he was, I would say, receptive enough and humble enough. He's at the top of the food chain in the medical world. But humble enough to take counsel from a prophet and say, Well I guess I should learn Mandarin. And it ended up extending his career around the world. In fact, the very last open heart surgery he did in his life was in mainland China after he became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Saved the life of a very famous opera star.
BM: Well, the program is "Therefore, What?" And that is always the question we have to get to in the end. First, I just want to say the book is so inviting, because you can literally flop it open to any page and begin and have a single sitting insight into a prophet's life. And I think that's exciting for young people as well as us older folks. So as you look at that, and as you look at the life of President Russell M. Nelson, what's the "Therefore, What?" What principle from his life would we all do well to implement in our own?
SD: There are a lot. It's hard to know which one to settle on. But I would suggest this one, maybe, in this context. And that is a very bright, talented, kind, gracious man. And if he had just used his own faculties and his own talent and his native ability, he would have been, quote-unquote, very successful and left quite a mark on the world. But early on in his life, he turned his life over to God, and basically allowed him to make more out of it than he would have ever made on his own. And I think there is a remarkable lesson in seeing the humility and the dedication and the sheer faith of someone willing to say, I'm willing to do whatever God wants me to do. And because of that, his impact the world over has been immeasurable. We'll never know how many — we know he saved nearly 7,000 lives in the operating room. We know that. You can't go anywhere with him that somebody doesn't come and say, You operated on my dad, you saved the life of so and so. But he has saved a lot of other lives because he's been willing to be submissive to God.
BM: Sheri Dew, thanks so much for being with us today. The biography, "Insights from a Prophet's Life" from Russell M. Nelson, a world religious leader, an extraordinary soul with insights and principles for all of us to follow. Thanks for sharing that with us today.7 comments on this story
Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. Be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/Tw, and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"