Book review: “The Best of Lowell L. Bennion” edited by Eugene England

I have written about Lowell Bennion a number of times in various books, first here in Gregory Prince’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, here in Gregory Handley’s personal tribute to Lowell Bennion, and here in Conscience and Community, a look at the intersection of personal ethics and religion through the lives of Sterling McMurrin, O. C. Tanner, and Lowell Bennion.

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But I hadn’t yet read an original work by Bennion! His entire approach to the gospel seemed so true to me, an approach that doesn’t often seem to be entirely replicated in the hierarchical/organizational Church. I think that’s because he clearly states that his first priority is to people and to God before the Church. There are talks that the Church and the gospel are different (here and here), but this clear order of priorities often doesn’t seem to come through in the priorities of individual members. And perhaps that comes off as threatening? Or non-committal?

A more recent author, Michael Austin, expresses a similar sentiment as articulated through his interpretation of the book of Job:

We cannot use God, or our belief in God, to dismiss other people’s pain. Sometimes, this means listening to things that make us uncomfortable or challenge our beliefs. It means allowing people to speak ill of things that we think well of—including (and perhaps especially) ourselves. And it means listening compassionately to those who criticize, contradict, or seek justice from God or from the human institutions that claim to represent Him. God can take care of Himself; our responsibility is to take care of each other.

I loved how this theme is expressed throughout this anthology of essays, letters, and talks. You come to know Lowell Bennion’s two favorite scriptures pretty quickly:

“I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them. . . . Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment [justice] run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Amos 5:21-24

and

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” Micah 6:8

He cites these Old Testament prophets and others (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea) as evidence that the first commitment of Christianity is to people, not to doctrines and practices. This sounded very familiar to a Jewish author I read a while back, Abraham Heschel, who pointed out that justice was the central concern of the Hebrew prophets. He stated:

Justice is not important for its own sake; the validity of justice and the motivation for its exercise lies in the blessings it brings to man. For justice, as stated above, is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God. “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry… if he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”

Scriptures can’t be justified to hurt other people. Bennion encourages service– with particular emphasis on service outside the Church. It shouldn’t be limited to our church callings. It should be a way of life. He is saddened when Latter-Day Saints focus on aspects of the gospel peculiar to the faith (Word of Wisdom, tithing, family history work, temple attendance) rather than the Christian injunction to love thy neighbor. He tells this story from his Institute days:

Weary of talking one evening, I decided to do something different. We had a small group of young people in attendance seated in a circle, and, starting from the left side of the circle, I said to the first person, “I would like each one of you in turn to tell us one thing you do not do because you are a Latter-day Saint.”

The first person said, “I don’t smoke.”

The second one said, “I don’t drink.”

The third one said, “I don’t drink coffee.”

The fourth one said, “I don’t drink tea.”

And then there was a long pause before the fifth one thought of something. He finally said, “I don’t go to shows on Sunday.”

And the sixth one said, “I don’t swear.”

And then there was a still longer pause and I turned to the other end of the circle and said, “Please tell us each in turn what you do do because you are a Latter-day Saint.”

The first one said, “I go to church.”

The second one said, “I go to priesthood meeting.”

The third one said, “I go to Sunday School.”

The fourth one said, “I go to choir practice.”

There was a long pause before the fifth one could say, “I pay tithing.” And they thought of one or two other things, and then there was another pause. I used block and tackle and couldn’t draw anything else out of this group. I thought perhaps I had caught them off guard. So a few weeks later I went to another fireside and tried the same method and got roughly the same answers. Once in doing this with a younger group of Explorers, I obtained a new answer. One of them said on the positive side, “Because I am a Latter-day Saint, I collect fast offerings.”

Brothers and sisters, I have nothing against the things that were said. I am deeply grateful for the Word of Wisdom. I pay tithing, and I do it gladly. And I believe in going to church and worshipping God there and enjoying the fellowship of my brothers and sisters. I delight in church service. The thing that grieves me about these answers is not what was mentioned but what was unmentioned. I do not know how you folks feel here, but in Salt Lake under the shadow of the temple and where I teach, I find that many students and many young people have reduced our religious life to a pattern of performances and of obedience to a few rather unique things in our gospel.

I fear that we Latter-day Saints, modern Israel, may fall into the same sin into which former dispensations of the house of Israel fell. Back in the days of Isaiah and Amos, the Israelites were “religious.”

Among the documents are also letters to his wife while he was serving a mission in Germany, as well as practical advice in topics like education and dating. Many of the items are pulled from gospel doctrine manuals, of which Bennion wrote no a few (I wish we had manuals of this caliber today!).

Bennion is a model to me of a true Christian life in the context of the Latter-Day Saint tradition. I would aspire to live a similar life that is outwardly directed. But first I will have to get off Twitter so much and get my hands dirty.

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