Book review: “If Truth were a Child” by George Handley

I can’t really add more than Conor Hilton’s book review of If Truth were a Child found found here, but I’m going to try anyway.

I’m in the midst of preparing for my defense, and I also just had a second child, so I haven’t been able to post any new book reviews recently. The lack of sleep really does add up. I have also been trying to tackle two other rather dense books at the same time, so I’ve been moving pretty slowly.

I was excited when I saw that Handley had another book coming out. I had really just discovered him when I read his tribute to Lowell Bennion, a mentor of his and a figure in Latter-Day-Saint-dom that I really wish I could have known in person. Like his mentor, Handley grasps the nuances and difficulties of faith– and yet, I would add, firmly committed to the gospel. He recounts in his book two difficult experiences that shaped his faith experience: a brother who committed suicide and another brother who came out as gay. Events like that change you and your faith.

If Truth Were a Child is a complete whole, but it is made up of a series of standalone essays. You could really read them in any order you wanted and it would still make sense. I read it as one whole, and that (combined with the fact I read it over a 2-month period) makes it hard to keep all the pieces or themes separate from one another. I’d like to be able to tell you which essays I like the best, but it’s kind of hard to pick out the pieces. I don’t want to ruin the title piece for you– you’ll have to figure out why truth would be like a child– but I will give you a taste of two unique ideas near the end of the text. In Reading and the Menardian Paradox Handley draws on a character from the works of Jorges Luis Borges Pierre Menard who tried to re-write Don Quixote as if if actually were the original author. Sounds kind of absurd, right? Like, it’s already been written, man, isn’t this a useless exercise? Handley uses this illustration as a jumping off point to explore two different theories of scripture: either the text and its possible interpretations are constant, and the views of the reader don’t matter at all. Or (according to reader-response theory) every reader’s interpretation of the text is unique, making it all subjective: why even try to find big-t truth in such a case? Handley calls this the Menardian paradox. Handley believes that Latter-Day Saints are able to “solve” (or at least engage and embrace) this paradox because our theology is dynamically orthodox:

We adhere to what we have recieved not out of fear of competition but in anticipation of what is yet to be revealed.

Latter-Day Saints are proud of our prophetic tradition because it does leave room for change to adapt to changing circumstances. But it can at times be a source of embarrassment: if it can change doesn’t that imply that you were wrong? Weren’t prophets wrong about blacks and the priesthood, and couldn’t they be wrong about a lot of other things? Are Latter-Day Saints actually just changing with the world? Handley engages with some of the consequences of this, firmly declaring that we aren’t moral relativists, but that the Latter-Day Saint embraces a model of revelation similar to that found in the Bible e.g. Peter receiving revelation to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.

Wow– so that and his other essay On the Moral Risks of Reading deal with this idea that how we read matters and has moral implications. Kind of a fascinating idea, and could create a spark in your own reading of scripture.

Handley engages with a lot of other authors throughout the book. I had to add some new ones to my reading list, but I also got excited when I found a familiar name, like Marilynne Robinson. I really like his building off of Adam Miller in the last chapter. I discovered Miller initially through his short paraphrases of books of the bible (check out my reviews here, here, and here). You will notice, as already pointed out in the previous section, that Handley’s ideas center around engaging in religious tension: reader-response theory versus immutable texts. The last essay The Grace of Nothingness is, to put it over-simply, an engagement with grace versus works. He begins with a quote attributed to Brigham Young and Saint Augustine that has had me thinking more than once before this essay:

Pray as if everything depends on the Lord. Act as if everything depends on you.

If I took anything away from this book, it is that turning paradoxes into an either/or is an over-simplification that can have dire spiritual consequences. Handley retains the mystery that is central to the gospel. Trying to retain the mystery of paradox isn’t to be lukewarm (neither hot nor cold, as the book of Revelation says), as some may accuse. On the contrary, picking a side is the easy way out, and is morally lazy. It’s giving up the life-long fight, the wrestle with the angel, that paradoxes represent.

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