Thursday, August 16, 2012

Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: Finding God in the Unlikeliest of Places by Jane Barnes Review

Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: Finding God in the Unlikeliest of PlacesFalling in Love with Joseph Smith: Finding God in the Unlikeliest of Places by Jane Barnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads: Fabulist or visionary, fraud or God's messenger—one woman's quest to nail down America's homegrown prophet.

When award-winning documentary film writer Jane Barnes was working on the PBS Frontline/American Experience special series “The Mormons,” she was surprised to find herself inexplicably drawn to Joseph Smith and the Mormon religion. The product of an Episcopalian, “Waspy” family, she had never even met a Mormon before she began work on the series. But so it was: She was smitten with a man who proclaimed to have translated the word of God by peering into the dark of his hat.

In this brilliantly written memoir, Barnes describes her experiences working on the PBS series as she teetered on the precipice of conversion to Mormonism. It all began when she came across Joseph Smith's early writings. She was delighted to discover how funny and utterly unique Smith was: “We do not normally think of God tickling us until we break into helpless peals of laughter.” And her fascination only deepened when, much to her surprise, she learned that her third paternal grandmother was a Mormon convert who, in 1833, had followed Smith west and whose family's pioneer life was consumed by the crises swirling around the prophet and his involvement in polygamy.

Falling in Love with Joseph Smith is a funny, poignant, philosophical book that anyone with a spiritual bone will relate to.

My thoughts: This is a rare find. The book is part memoir and part historical yet they can not be separated. The reason I found this book so wonderful is that the author has no agenda. Far too often in secular publishing, the goal of the book is to discount Joseph Smith and/or Mormonism. On the other side of the equation is the publishing company, Deseret Book which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. What I was really wanted to read was an objective view of the LDS church. As objective as an exploration could be, at any rate. Barnes provided this.

Jane Barnes is a baby boomer, raised as an Episcopalian although with little religion. She married a Catholic and had two daughters, both of whom she took to the Catholic church. Still being young when the 60's were in their exploration stage, Jane found herself questioning many societal norms and was drawn to the fringe, entering a lesbian relationship thus ending her marriage. This experience turned out to be a vital experiment in understanding how one feels to be practicing an unpopular practice; one that is not discussed and make others uncomfortable. Much like earlier Mormons.

Later in life, Jane was introduced to Joseph Smith's life and teachings through a writing job she had with a cable network. She was fascinated, enamored, and obsessively jumped right in to explore the subject matter. For the reader to understand her point of view, it is important to understand the author and her experiences which led to Joseph Smith and ultimately her decision on where to place her knowledge in her life today.

Being a life-long member of the LDS faith, I wanted to see from another's eyes how the church and Joseph Smith is perceived sans propaganda. To google the subject is to take into the sites of hateful and anti-Mormon thoughts based on angry feelings rather than thoughtful theology and scholarship. Mormon bashing has become a popular sport as of late.

On the other side of the coin is the fact that before the age of information, and like many other members of different denominations, I was provided a carefully edited version that did not always paint a complete picture of the times, the people, or events. Barnes, not being a member of the LDS faith, provides more objectivity without an agenda to slander to canonize.

Naturally, I didn't agree with all of Barnes' ideas or facts. Some of her accepted facts are controversial. At the same time, I don't fault her findings or conclusions simply due to the fact that she took the time to explore concepts with the goal of understanding. Her research also provided me with at least two books that I want to read on Joseph Smith.

Barnes does not shy away from the cringe-worthy subjects. One subject that is particularly controversial is polygamy. Did Joseph Smith institute it because he was inspired by God or because he was oversexed? Although the mainstream LDS church does not and has not practiced polygamy since late 1850's, this was a great cause of friction within the early Church. So much so, members who did not forsake the practice were excommunicated. Also, those who refused to accept the doctrine prior to coming to Utah, left the church. Most did not refute that Joseph was a prophet of God and translated the Book of Mormon. They refuted the practice of polygamy as doctrine.

The most fascinating discussion and exploration came at the nearly the end of the book. Although comfortable enough looking at mainstream Mormon people, I, like most of America cringe at today's polygamous communities. Thank you, Rulon and Warren Jeffs. But Barnes goes there. Well, not specifically THERE but she tracks down a different sect of Utah polygamy. Just outside of Colorado City sits a community called Centennial Park where she finds a family open to discussing the practice and reality of polygamy. I found the explanation and discussion of the real spirit of polygamy beautiful and tragically misunderstood by those who abuse it. I found that I gained an appreciation for those who choose to practice it (I just don't want them to call themselves Mormons because I'm selfish like that). They are largely underground and quietly practicing what they view as eternal marriage while the scandalous get the press time.

I found the book and Barnes' journey to be honest, positive, and beautiful. I appreciated her candidness regarding her own life and experiences, as well as her openness to Joseph Smith and his contextual time period in American History. I enjoyed her honest agenda of trying to understand Joseph Smith.

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