Book review: “Letters to a Young Mormon” by Adam Miller

Goodreads summary

This book is composed as a series of letters. The letters are meant for a young Mormon who is familiar with Mormon life but green in their faith. I imagined myself writing these letters to my own children and struggled, in relation to how we talk about things at church, to say my own piece about what it means to be—as a Mormon—free, ambitious, repentant, faithful, informed, prayerful, selfless, hungry, chaste, and sealed.

The letters do little to benchmark a Mormon orthodoxy. That work belongs to those called to it. Here, my work is personal. I mean only to address the real beauty and real costs of trying to live a Mormon life. And I hope only to show something of what it means to live in a way that refuses to abandon either life or Mormonism.

20631960

 

Why this book

I chose this book as my Sunday reading material for the past two weeks. My little attempt at keeping the Sabbath day a little bit holier. I have read some Adam Miller before. I think I first stumbled upon his name at By Common Consent or Times and Seasons. I started with his series of personal translations of books from the Bible, including Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans and Nothing New Under the Sun: A Blunt Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes. Adam does a lot of spiritual work here that created a lot of meaning for me in works that had previously seemed either arcane or mundane. Just take this summary of Romans from his introduction to Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan:

Sin likes to think that it came first and that grace, then, is God’s stopgap response. Sin acts as if God’s original plan was for us to bootstrap ourselves into holiness by way of the law and then, when this didn’t quite pan out, God offered his grace—but only the bare minimum—to make good the difference and boost us into righteousness. This is exactly backwards. Grace is not God’s backup plan. Jesus is not plan B. God’s boundless grace comes first and sin is what follows. Grace is not God’s response to sin. Sin is our embarrassed, improvised, rebellious rejection of God’s original grace.

I noticed on Goodreads that a few of my friends have read his Letters to a Young Mormon, and I thought it would be a good next read.

My Overview

Letters is fairly short, a form of which Miller seems to be a master. It is written, as explained in the title, as a series of letters, seemingly like a father-son/father-daughter relationship with some spiritual advice about gospel matters. But they often don’t take a traditional approach. These aren’t ways of explaining the gospel that I have ever found at Church, and yet they feel like these kinds of discussions are urgently needed with youth (and adults for that matter). He explains his approach in his introduction:

The letters do little to benchmark a Mormon orthodoxy. That work belongs to those called to it. Here, my work is personal. I mean only to address the real beauty and real costs of trying to live a Mormon life. And I hope only to show something of what it means to live in a way that refuses to abandon either life or Mormonism.

Miller is one who refuses to play doublethink with the gospel. The narrative we tell ourselves at Church often conflicts with our real lived experience. How we respond to this is central to Adam’s whole thesis: that giving up those stories is central to God’s plan for us. I like this profound metaphor of stories that weaves through Miller’s letters:

Like everyone, you have a story you want your life to tell. You have your own way of doing things and your own way of thinking about things. But “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9). As the heavens are higher than the earth, God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him. Preferring your stories to his life is sin.

What happens when your personal narrative of your life, or of the Bible, or of Church history gets shattered when you find out something new? Do you abandon your faith? That’s a very unstable way to live, because religious or not, we all have stories, and you have to have a way of navigating life, have some form of stability. Giving up these quick-ey half-baked stories is the only way to build a sure foundation. A lot of faith crises would be solved if we learned that Church leaders are hugely flawed people and the people who wrote the Bible weren’t science experts.

Each letter seems to build on the other, but I can’t quite decode the pattern. I feel that the first are some general principles of life (agency and work) followed by gospel principles (sin, faith, scripture, etc). Then he tackles what I feel are difficult topics that can confront youth (history, science, hunger, and sex). The book wraps up with upward-thinking thoughts on temples and eternal life.

Some good quotes

I really liked Miller’s elaboration on Mormonism’s down-to-earth approach to heaven. It has some of the same feel to Lowell Bennion’s advice in Learning to Like Life: A Tribute to Lowell Bennion. Terryl Givens emphasizes this aspect of Mormon theology as well in Wrestling with the Angel:

What are eternal lives like? They’re just like this. They’re like disagreeing with your wife. They’re like doing the dishes with your husband. They’re like reading to your kids. They’re like going to work or mowing the lawn. They’re like sitting in a chair. They’re like sleeping through the night or getting up before dawn. They’re like visiting your mother. They’re like eating a cookie. They’re like being born and getting old. They’re like dying. What are eternal lives like? They, dear S., are like you.

I absolutely loved Miller’s “birds and the bees” talk. He uses an extended metaphor of the ocean that goes a long way. I wish I had this advice when I was coming to terms with my sexuality:

This hunger for intimacy is like an ocean. It will come like a flood and you will feel lost at sea. When you were a child, you walked on dry ground. In order to become an adult, you’ll have to learn how to swim. You are no more responsible for being at sea than you are for needing to breathe. And, though some may say different, you are not guilty because the ocean is wet. You did not choose this hunger, you did not choose your gender, and you did not choose its orientation. But, however the particulars may vary, the task remains basically the same: learn how to care for this hunger. Caring for this hunger will take practice and patience. Be kind to yourself as you stumble through.

And I like Miller’s approach to imperfect Church leaders:

It’s a false dilemma to claim that either God works through practically flawless people or God doesn’t work at all. The gospel isn’t a celebration of God’s power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God’s willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren’t. To demand that church leaders, past and present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel’s most basic claim: that God’s grace works through our weak-ness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.

Our church manuals and church histories are sometimes shy about this good news. With good intentions, they worry over your faith. Sometimes they seem too much like that friend of a friend who really just wants you to like them, and so they pretend to only like the same vanilla things they think you do.

Recommendations

The Church has recently published a more open form of its history in Saints: The Standard of Truth One apostle expressed the idea that this will vaccinate youth from faith crises. And I do agree. But I think that we need to change more than just our approach to history, and Miller’s Letters are a good place to start. I know that discussions around sexuality are another thorn that still is handled pretty poorly. I think this book alone would do a lot of good with Mormon teenagers to get them thinking about how to integrate their faith into their lives, so it is a living and not a dead thing.

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