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Book Review: Mormons: An Open Book. What You Really Want to Know

By Anthony Sweat

Ensign Peak, 2012

Reviewed by Sharon Lindbloom

The author of Mormons An Open Book did not put his name on the cover or title page of the book, choosing instead to identify himself merely as “a Mormon.” The author identifies himself in his “Author’s Note” as Anthony Sweat, “a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, …a Latter-day Saint religious educator” (vii). In the Preface Dr. Sweat explains, “This book is an attempt to say, in essence, ‘Hey, this is what we actually believe. You can take it or leave it, but at least you now you know’” (x). Over the next 26 chapters comprising 243 pages, readers get a taste of everything Mormon, from the content of the Church’s central message to the prevalence of pot-luck funeral potatoes.

The book touches on many topics, but it does not really discuss any of them. Each page is generously filled with headlines, bullet points, graphics, and pull-quotes, leaving relatively little space for commentary. Nevertheless, the information the book does provide is presented in a colorful, attractive, and entertaining format.

In its presentation of “what you really want to know,” Open Book relies very heavily on statistics. Do you want to know how many Latter-day Saints are first generation converts? See page 4. Do you want to know the average age of women in Utah at the time of their first marriages? See page 53. How about the percentage of Americans who believe in angels? See page 114. If “you really want to know” the percentage of American parents of teens who think a teenager should refrain from one-on-one dating until they are 16 years old, page 176 is the place for you. Ironically, in chapter 13 titled “The Book of Mormon,” after the reader has been presented no fewer than 15 statistical facts over 6 pages, the author writes, “There are those who love to spout facts, studies, and evidence that supposedly prove the Book of Mormon is or isn’t true. However, trying to use a scientific study to confirm or deny the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is like using a heart-rate monitor to measure if you’re in love: It’s the wrong tool for the job” (120).

While Open Book promises to present “What you really want to know” about Mormons and Mormonism, the flavor of the book seems more like “What Anthony Sweat wants you to know.” Of course, no book can cover every detail of any given subject, especially one as short and graphically formatted as this one. Even so, the way the author chooses to use his limited space gives readers something that is more akin to the “I’m a Mormon” commercials than a bona fide examination of Mormonism.

For example, Mormonism has a colorful and interesting past. It is a historical religion, built upon claims of ancient gold plates, angelic visions, and God-given revelations that led to a new book of scripture and a plethora of controversial practices and beliefs among early church members. Chapter 11 of Open Book is dedicated to the history of the LDS Church – “in Thirty Seconds.” The entire chapter is a mere two-page spread. Some historical events are discussed or touched upon elsewhere in the book (e.g., Joseph Smith’s multiple wives, 102), but the 30-second history offered in Open Book is merely a timeline of significant LDS Church events (e.g., the priesthood is restored, the church is organized, the first temple is dedicated, etc.), coupled with the usual highlighting of persecution endured by the Mormons (without any corresponding notation of the historical persecution perpetrated by the Mormons). Because historical issues top the list of reasons Mormons resign their church membership, one would expect to find some of these historical concerns addressed in any “open book,” but they are not addressed in this one.

In fairness, Part Two of the book’s three parts (Part 1: Mormon Beliefs and Part 3: The Mormon Way of Life) is titled “Mormon History.” Thirty-four pages of Open Book are here devoted to three main topics: The Joseph Smith Story, The Book of Mormon, and Latter-day Prophets. With the exception of the confession that Joseph Smith had more than one wife, the chapter about the Mormon prophet is a glowing, faith-promoting narrative. The chapter on the Book of Mormon is not primarily historical; it is more of an apologetic framed to answer criticisms against the divine origin of the book (e.g., chiasms and wordprints, 116 and 118 respectively). The chapter on latter-day prophets contains a short paragraph about each Mormon prophet from Joseph Smith to Thomas Monson, but it conveniently avoids historical issues, choosing instead to focus on things like the technicalities of prophetic succession (131-132) and explaining why Mormon prophets wear suits (125).

Even so, Open Book does present some unexpected elements of Mormon doctrine. Although the book does not explain the Mormon concept of men being the same species as God with the potential of becoming Gods themselves, the author states,

“…since we believe all mankind are literally the children of God, then logically all mankind has inherited divine potential. We believe every individual has the innate capacity to eventually become like God. Just as an oak seed can eventually become a mighty oak tree, we believe that, as God’s seed, each person has the potential to eventually become like our Mighty Parent in the next life.” (31)

The reader then turns the page to find this headline: “Quotes on Divine Potential: Gods in Embryo.” It is surprising to find this verbiage in a contemporary, pro-Mormon book. Not so surprising, however, are the misapplied quotes from the Bible and C.S. Lewis that follow. Nor is it surprising that there is but one supporting quote from a uniquely Mormon source (i.e., D&C 76:58), though many clear teachings from Mormon leaders (including statements from at least four prophets and a couple of apostles) are readily available. While a statement from C. S. Lewis, a non-Mormon, may be interesting, a quote from 12th LDS President Spencer W. Kimball would do much more to support the author’s premise, as well as fulfill his promise to present Mormonism as “an open book”:

“Man has in himself the seeds of godhood, which can germinate and grow and develop. As the acorn becomes the oak, the mortal man becomes a god… Man is a god in embryo…” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 28)

The last thirty-nine percent of the book addresses The Mormon Way of Life. While the author includes promising topics, such as Mormon women, money and politics, the reader quickly gets lost in all of the statistical data presented. More than 60 footnotes reference studies, surveys, and statistical reports in these 11 chapters, and many of them represent several bits of statistical data in one. For example:

“That being said, Mormons – and Utah in particular – are one of the ‘most conservative major religious groups in [America],’ with 59 percent of LDS respondents identifying themselves as ‘conservative’ and 31 percent identifying themselves as ‘moderate,’ according to a 2010 [sic] Gallup poll. (fn 12) A 2007 Pew study found that about two-thirds (65 percent) of Mormons identify with the Republican party, which is 15 percent higher than evangelicals (50 percent) and 30 percent higher than the general population (35 percent). Only one-fifth of Mormons (22 percent) say they are Democrats, and the remainder say they do not favor either party. (fn 13)” (216, brackets in the original)

Thus only two footnote references refer to the presentation of nine different statistics. Furthermore, the facing page (217) graphically displays the referenced 2010 Gallup poll (which is actually a poll conducted in 2009) that charts “Ideology among US Religious Groups,” providing still more statistical data for an additional six individual religious categories.

Statistics are tricky. “Averages and trends and relationships and graphs are not always what they seem,” wrote Darrell Huff, author of How to Lie with Statistics. “There may be a good deal more in them than meets the eye, and there may be a good deal less.”

Open Book loves to present statistics, but it is up to the reader to sort through them and determine the “more” or “less” that they might represent.  I randomly chose one set of statistics to sort through, and this is what I found.

In chapter 20 (“LDS Teenagers”) the author cites a “four-year study by the National Study of Youth and Religion” to demonstrate the superior behavior and faith of Mormon youth above kids of other religions (173). Mormon kids come out looking pretty good in the areas the author chose to highlight. But consider some additional facts.

The study cited was conducted beginning in the summer of 2002, with results published in early 2005. Thus, the statistical data were 7-10 years old when Open Book was published.  And while the author of Open Book mentions the primary source as a “see also” in his footnote, the lists, percentages, and quotes he uses actually come from a secondary source: a Mormon newspaper article.

In looking at the Deseret News article that the author cites, additional information presents itself. For example, while the study found (and Open Book states) that Mormon youth are “more likely” to “attend religious services once a week (43 percent),” conservative Protestant youth “were slightly more likely than Mormons to attend church more than once a week” (emphasis added to aid clarity). Open Book repeats a statistic from the Deseret News article stating that Mormon youth are more likely to “rate the importance of religious faith in shaping their daily life as ‘extremely important’ (43 percent).” But the Deseret News article includes more information in the form of a chart demonstrating that the slightly different “importance of faith in shaping major life decisions” is “important” to 66 percent of Mormon kids — the same level as Black Protestant kids. And a higher percentage of Mormon youth compared to these same Black Protestant kids believe faith is “not important” in shaping their life decisions (13 percent vs. 6 percent respectively).

Furthermore, Deseret News reported, “one of the few areas where LDS youth didn’t outrank their peers was ‘belief in God’ — 84 percent said they believe, compared with 97 percent black Protestants, 94 percent conservative Protestants and 86 percent mainline Protestants.” Open Book does not mention these statistics.

How to Lie with Statistics author Darrell Huff noted a “daze that follows the collision of statistics with the human mind.” Open Book is a good example of this phenomenon. Leaving readers dizzy with statistics and stuffed with half-formed facts, this Open Book is perhaps best left shut.

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