This “15 Literary Influences” game is making the rounds on Facebook, and I thought it would make an excellent gratitude post! After all, I’m super thankful for books!
The rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. If you want, make your own blog post and give us a link in the comments. Alternatively, you could write it as a note on Facebook and tag me (if we’re not already FB friends and you’re a regular reader, add me!).
Okay, here are my 15:
So here’s a secret I only admitted to myself about a year ago.
I never had a testimony of Joseph Smith.
I know it sounds incongruous, because I’ve always believed the Book of Mormon–but Joseph was this looming enigma, too complex to wrap my mind (let alone my heart) around.
After all, there’s the “primary” version, with beautiful, heroic paintings and almost vain repetitions and retellings of his First Theophany.
And then there are the things we don’t talk about, the secrets you hear whispered but are never quite brave enough to ask for more details…masonry, Kirtland- and Nauvoo-era polygamy, gold digging, and more.
In my previous pursuit of “perfection,” I tried to dismiss these stories as false or simply ignore them. After all, my precarious worldview would tumble were I to learn something to discredit him. And then where would I be? All this work, all this suffering for a false salvation?
No, thank you!
So because I never examined it, it never crushed my fragile faith. But because I never acknowledged it, it was always there, this nagging presence in the back of my mind, waiting to burst to the forefront on a moment’s notice–which it had this uncomfortable habit of doing from time to time.
Well, this year I decided it was time to confront it head-on. To find out the truth about this Joseph Smith and let the chips fall where they may.
I read Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, which gave me a gentle introduction to issues like gold-digging and polygamy–but also got me inside the story and helped me relate to Joseph as a human being. He was a brilliant, active man with a deep love for others. Throughout his life, he was never good with money and often made reckless business decisions. He was ambitious and prone to anger easily. But he suffered–oh, how he suffered!–for what he believed in, and he genuinely believed it, and he genuinely loved God and his fellow man–and had a truly uncommon connection with the Divine.
Next, I read Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, a remarkable book that recounts the lives of Joseph’s polygamous wives. I learned about them, and I learned about him. I was saddened by their trials, inspired by their faith, became intimately acquainted with their flaws and strengths. They lived massive, epic lives–the stuff of legends, myth, and scripture. They made huge mistakes and had spiritual experiences larger than I can comprehend. And a new image of Joseph began to emerge: one of a man–a remarkable man, it’s true–but flawed and imperfect…and maybe, just maybe, chosen of God despite all that.
Finally, I read Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Newell and Avery. Somehow, relating to him from the women’s perspective made it easier for me to understand. I saw him as a husband, as a father, as a leader. I saw Emma’s opposition to polygamy, and Joseph’s insistence on it. I saw her devotion to him anyway. I saw him as a human being, and I empathized with him. And I found peace.
Now, I’m not saying I totally “get” Joseph Smith. And I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about him. I’m not even saying I don’t still have questions and concerns.
But as I’ve abandoned my perfectionism, I’ve begun to embrace a much more nuanced worldview. One which can accept a flawed prophet. Life is a messy, messy thing, and we lie, and we lust, and we covet, and we hate, and we sin, and we cling to something greater than we are to pull us out of the muck we’ve created for ourselves–and He does.
So if God could take fallen Adam and give him joy, and if God could take Saul of Tarsus and make him an Apostle, and if God could take Jonah and save a city–and most of all, if God could take me and make me whole–then God can take Joseph and make him great. I can accept that. I can choose to believe that.
And I do.