Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield

 In his book The Mormonizng of America, Stephen Mansfield mixes history with real life antecdotes to help his readers get inside the head of today's Mormon. He attempts to objectively present how the average person views Mormons verses how they see themselves.

To the average non Morman, Mormans are cult followers who believe they are going to one day be gods, each populating their own planet. And they wear “magic underwear” they can never take off.

If you watched (and enjoyed) the Broadway show, The Book of Mormon, you probably think they're a bunch of idiots. For that matter, if you're the sort of person to like a show like The Book of Mormon, you probably feel smugly affirmed in your  atheistic belief that all religious people are idiots.

How do Mormons view themselves?

For one, they believe in premortality. This means that they and the family they will belong to- the spouse they will marry, the children they will have- pre existed before they came to earth. They refer to their god (no he's not the same as God as I'll explain later) as Heavenly Father. Mansfield relates a conversation between a Mormon husband and wife:

It's our duty, honey. I know you believe as I do that our family has already existed in premortality. I've become absolutely certain there are still more spirits who are part of us...We need to conceive so that the spirits of our unborn children can assume their bodies and be with us for time and all eternity.

Spirits? Children? You're talking about more than one.

Yes. I believe that we have three more children waiting to be with us. (pg. 15)

They also believe in post mortality (my word). However, not in the way Christianity or other religions do. Muslims believe that they will live forever in Paradise with “flowing water running by their feet” and “many blushing virgins”. Buddhists and Hindus believe they will reincarnate until they achieve perfection and reach Nirvana. According to World of Judaica the question is irrelevant to Jews (although some Jews may wish to debate that). Christians believe that only through Jesus Christ has the barrier of sin been removed between them and God and they will then live with Him and enjoy relationship with Him and fellow believers forever.

Mormons believe they will remain with their earthly families throughout all eternity. They will one day rule a world as Heavenly Father rules this world now with his family. Mormons do not believe Heavenly Father created matter; he organizes it (pg. 32). Once upon a time, he was a human with his family on another planet. He achieved god status and populated this world with his progeny.

They also believe that eternal life is not given through grace. It is merited by the works one achieves.

A Mormon believes he is in this world to pass tests... Mormons believe that this life is like an obstacle course they must master in order to qualify for what comes in eternity...Mormon rituals and doctrines are filled with the language of accomplishment and achievement, possessed of the virtue of reaching goals and passing tests. Much of the terminology of Mormonism sounds like it comes from the handbook of the US Military Academy at West Point or from the textbooks of an elite MBA program. (pg. 32)

What is the history of Mormonism and where did they get their beliefs?

Starting in the year 1820, in upstate New York a young teenager named Joseph Smith began receiving visions. An angel, Moroni, appeared to Joseph Smith and told him about a book written upon gold plates.

There were also two stones in silver bows....use of these stones were what constituted 'seers' in ancient or former times ; and the God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book. (pg. 104)

Joseph Smith put these stones in his hat and would “read” them. Here are a few of his revelations:

The American Indians are the lost tribes of Israel

The Aaronic and Melshizedek presthoods were “restored” through which the Book of Mormon was recovered and translated.

The pure teachings of Jesus Christ were perverted...all Christian churches had become corrupt, ..and were an abomination to God. (pg. 146)

And then there's the subject of polygamy. Joseph Smith has this to say:

Verily, if a man be called of my Father, as was Aaron, by mine own voice, and by the voice of him that sent me, and I have endowed him with the keys of the power of this priesthood, if he do anything in my name, and according to my law and by my word, he will not commit sin, and I will justify him.

Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph; for I will justify him; for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands for his transgressions, saith the Lord your God.

And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood -if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified. (pg. 181)

Mormons believe in “progressive revelation”. That means what they may have believed in the past isn't necessarily what they hold to today. In the words of LDS president Ezra Taft Benson : “ A living prophet trumps a dead prophet.” Which is why Mormon president Wilford Woodruff, speaking as all Mormon presidents do-in the office of “prophet, seer, and revelator” declared polygamy at an end in his Manifesto, printed in 1908. (pg. 182)

This is also why Mormons hold to doctrines not found in the Book of Mormon such as: baptism for the dead, eventual exaltation to godhood, celestial marriage, eternal progress, a multitude of gods, varying levels of heaven, Temple ceremonies, and avoiding tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol...(pg. 183)

Though Joseph Smith was killed by a mob for "marrying" a thirteen year old in 1844, Brigham Young took over the church and was the one who eventually led them out West.  Mansfield proceeds to bring us up to date from that point to the Mormon church of today.

Mansfield tells us from the beginning of his book that he is not a Mormon and he makes it clear by his research that he believes that the Mormon faith is built upon the foundation of a man who was described in his own day as a “magician and seer, and wicked charlatan.” However, at the very end of the book we come to his actual thrust.

In a nutshell, yes Mormons may be deceived, they may have a historically faulty foundation for their faith, they may be flat out wrong. BUT. Let's not call them a cult. Instead, Mansfield suggests that we refer to them as a “Fourth Abrahamic Religion” along with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Through out the book Mansfield extols the virtues of Mormonism: their work ethic, the emphasis they place on education, on tight, stable families. He lists all the famous Mormons who have achieved so much. His conclusion?

Mormonism is, at heart, about progress, about ruling pristine territory, about the spiritual matrix of family, about the democratization of spiritual experience, about sacred ritual, about the elevating power of community, about a people escaping a corrupt world in the east to establish a holy communion in the west, about a “land of Liberty”...This is the religion of the Saints, but it is also the underpinning of the American dream..

If this is true... it would mean that the earthly success of the Saints is replicable, that is occurred on the strength of principles the non-Saint may emulate. In this view, the Mormon distinctives would ...become principles of Americanism available to the willing of any faith. (pg. 242)

If this is true... that's the crux right there, isn't it? Is it true?

What does the Christian perspective say? For one thing, salvation doesn't come from our merit or works. That not only includes personal salvation but the salvation of a nation. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, it says,

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Mr. Mansfield seems to be under the belief that, even if a man belongs to a false religion, if the laudable -or at least, workable- characteristics of that religion will work for the country, hey! Let's embrace it. He seems to forget another important piece of scripture from Matthew 15:26:

For what will it profit it a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?

This book has come out at a convenient time, right before the election. I really have to wonder who paid to produce it. I know that many Christians will be voting for Romney because they want Obama out of office. I can appreciate that. But I for one can't pretend to overlook the fact that this man is a member of a cult that views the rest of us as “corrupted, ignoble spirits”.

If we think that's not going to carry repercussions, we're being naive.

I received this book for free.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor by Pat McManus

    Patrick McManus has long been one of my favorite writers.  His style and ability are what I hope to emulate in my own writing.  To all aspiring writers’ good fortune, he has written a book guiding the rest of us into the realm of humor writing.

     The Deer on A Bicycle: Excursions into the writing of Humor has probably been the most beneficial of the entire how-to write books I’ve read so far.  Of course it helps that I’ve read most of McManus' books and so already have a great deal of respect for him.  It’s so much more convincing to receive advice from someone who’s sold millions of copies of books that I enjoy than from someone whom I’ve never heard of.

      For years McManus wrote articles for Field and Stream about camping, hunting and fishing- activities, aside from camping, that I couldn’t be less interested in.  His humor, however, had me falling out of my chair, bursting a gut.  He’s not just funny, he’s hilarious.  His can use graphic imagery in a way that plants absurd thoughts into your head that is practically unrivaled.

      I say all that to say that if you’re someone who would like to know how to construct a funny story and hopefully sell it to a publisher or magazine, you will want to read this book.  It is not only informative but, true to form, very funny.  Reading this book was as fun as reading any of Mcmanus' other humor pieces. 

     The book is written in a question and answer format where he has one of his characters, Newton, ask a question about writing which he then answers.  Here’s an example:

    Newton:  Pat, what do you mean by “indirection” in a story? 

Pat:  I’m sorry you brought that one up, Newt.  Let’s see. Hmm.

   Well, indirection is where you don’t write about what you intend to write about but write about something else that in some way reveals what it was you actually wanted to write about.  All clear about that?  (pg. 19)

      Believe it or not, he does make clear what he means by that later in that section.  It’s one of the best writing techniques to develop.

 Here’s another example:

Newton:  What do you believe is the ultimate in a prose style, Pat?

  Pat:  It is a style in which the words vanish for the reader.  Anytime writing draws attention to itself as writing it detracts from the desired effect, which is to create an uninterrupted flow of thoughts, emotions images, ideas and information through, the mind of the reader. (pg. 66)

      This is excellent advice and is my goal as a writer. 

 McManus also shares  his own background.  He describes how he got started by selling works first to magazines and then to publishers.  He gives some  good advice on how to query and write proposals, but mostly he focuses on how to write.

     The best advice I got from his book was where he said he decided he was going to write for two hours every day.  Not think about writing or plan on writing, just write.  He found that, like magic, his writing got better and better and also easier.  After a while, the words just flowed.  Another thing he made himself do was send off everything he wrote.  Hmm. I’m not up to that yet, but I’m sure it improves the odds of getting your material published.

       He gives solid and well-needed advice about needing  thick skin and getting rejected.  It was encouraging to know that, as great a writer as he is; he still got rejected over and over again (even after his work was published in magazines!) by publishers.

      The final section of the book contains some of his funniest short stories followed by a commentary as to how he came up with the idea and developed it.

    All in all, I highly recommend this book. 

All the proceeds of this book go toward a scholarship fund for creative writing and journalism students at Eastern Washington University where McManus was a Writing Professor for twenty-three years.

 For more information:



Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley


   James Tooley went to India to help educate the poor people by researching schools for World Bank. While there, he stumbled onto a shocking fact: the poor were actually helping themselves. What he found in the slums of India China, and several African countries is that poor people living there were sending their children to private schools inside their own neighborhoods.

Mr. Tooley traveled to several countries and through word of mouth found tiny schools in the poorest of the poor neighborhoods. These schools were funded solely by the parents who wanted nothing more than a good education for their children.

At first Toolely could not understand why these poor parents were willing to pay out of their meager salaries for schools in broken down buildings when international organizations were pouring millions of dollars into public schools for these same people.

By investigating the public schools, Toolely saw that while the public schools were housed in expensive buildings with expensive playground equipment the children were receiving an education that was inferior to what the poor children were receiving in their own neighborhoods. Teachers were not showing up many days, the student-teacher ratio was as much as sixty to one. He even saw teachers sleeping while a student would try to teach. How could all this happen? No accountability.

What these poor parents discovered was an age old truism. You get what you pay for. By paying for the small private schools in their neighborhoods they had direct contact with what they were paying for. In other words the parents made the teachers accountable. If the teachers don't provide the service paid for, the parents take their kids to a different school. The owners of these schools knew this was bad business so they made sure their teachers did their jobs.

The fascinating part was how difficult it was to convince the leaders of the international organizations as well as state officials of the effectiveness of privatization of schools. Anything for profit was seen as evil. Something could only be good if the government was paying for it. It boiled down to poor equals stupid. Poor people can't possible know what's best for them. They need the state to take care of them.

In this highly readable and enjoyable book, James Tooley proves that poor parents are like everyone else. They have their families' best interest at heart and they'll do what they have to in order to make it happen.

As I've been reading in the Wall Street Journal, many parents are taking the public schools to task here as well.  Charter schools are a growing phenomenon in America.

I bought this book.

James Tooley is a professor of education policy at Newcastle University, where he directs the E.G. West Center.  For his ground-breaking research on private education for the poor in India, China and Africa, Professor Tooley was awarded gold prize in the first International Finance Corporation/Financial Times Private Sector Development Competition.

Kindle for $7.69

For more information:

Another good review of the same book by someone who grew up in India:
Journey of Life

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Meet Yamina Collins, Author and Blogger

This week I am interviewing Yamina Collins.  She is a fellow blogger and author.  She has just published her first book.

First up, what’s this book about?
It’s a short story collection called The Blueberry Miller Files. I had a blast writing these stories, and these multi-ethnic characters, in all their humor, tragedy in awkwardness. I think I’m fascinated by humanities fallen condition. I’m fascinated by our sin, and how it affects us and those around us.

Nonetheless, some of them are fun stories; I deal with a wealthy, negligent father who learns the hard way that family doesn’t always stick together; a southern belle with a modern sensibility that may not be as modern as she thinks, and a relationship guru who finds that first loves are often hard to forget.

OK, but why write short stories? Do short stories collections even sell?
First of all, let me say this: the indie writer no longer has to worry about sales.  Don’t get me wrong. I know authors want to make a living just as much as the next person; and if you’re an indie author who is being published by a small press other than the one you yourself created, well, ok, that could prove to be a an issue.

But, for the indie and self-pubbed author who is truly their own boss, you’re no longer in danger of being “dropped” just because your groovy little story collection only sold 50 copies.

Secondly, I believe that this decade will see a rebirth of the short story genre. There is no doubt in my mind that there’s an audience for shorter works. Remember when F. Scott Fitzgerald was making the majority of his income off stories he sold to the Saturday Evening Post in the 1920s? Why can’t that happen again?

Yes, it’s true that we live in post-MTV, twitter generation. And, yes, people have short attention spans. But I say a good, short read should be just up their alley!

You published “The Blueberry Miller Files” via your own publishing company, DeeBooks Publishing. What was that experience like?
It has cost me a lot of money, but it’s been wonderful, too. Actually, publishing this book via my own company gave me the freedom to be the following: a black writer who writes about white characters (sometimes), a Christian author who refuses to use cursing in any of my stories, even though it might not “sound realistic” to some people, and a “southern” observer who does something I never saw done in Gone with the Wind: let the slave holders speak with as much of a jacked-up dialect as the slaves themselves spoke with. It’s been a fun ride.

Yes, speaking of cursing, you have all of these fallen characters in these ugly situations, yet none of them curse! Why not?
I don’t curse in my books, or in real life. As a Christian, I don’t think you stop being a Christian just while you’re writing your book. Honestly, I don’t think God gives us commands without a way for us to follow them. So I have to find ways for people to say nasty things without crossing that line of actually saying it. It has to be implied. Or if there’s a sex scene, somehow I have to let the audience know it’s happening with describing it or titillating people. It’s kind of an exercise in creativity. It can be a tough call to make, but I think it’s doable. And it’s challenging, too! But, hey, life was meant for challenges! God stretches us when we’re challenged.

Any Favorite Characters in the Collection?
I love this character named Madam Adams. She is a loony little doll; an African-American Anglophile with a Shakespeare complex. Her parents raised her in Harlem, but she tells people she was raised in England by a group of thespians. She is a loveable nutcase with a fondness for bad writing, wine, and crumpets.

Who are some of your all-time favorite short story authors?
Edgar Allan Poe, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Henry James and Washington Irving. Not that all these people wrote only short stories. And, in fact, Henry James was known for the nouvelle rather than the typical short story, but…you get the point. These guys were masters. And I love the classics. That’s what I grew up on.

You now run a book blog that gets some 130,000 hits and 12,000 visitors per month. What’s been the primary focus of your blog so far? 
You know, the initial reason I started was to chronicle my own personal journey as a soon-to-be published indie writer back in 2010, before my book came out. I figured a blog would be a great way to provide publicity for my future books. However, something funny happened along the way of my journey. I quickly grew bored hearing my own voice. I wanted to know what other writers were doing in the self-publishing and indie publishing world.

Also, I became suspicious that indie writers who focus solely on their own work lose out on a potentially larger audience when they don’t involve and support other writers. So really, my blog is about providing value information to other writers by inviting other writers to partake in the journey.

It’s quickly evolved from a “Me, me, me” blog to a “You, you, you,” blog, and soon I am hoping to do literary shows soon where I get to interview other writers.

Any advice to would-be writers out there?
Yes. If you’re an indie author, treat your book with some respect. Give it the same treatment you would want a publishing house to give it. Hire an editor, get your book cover done professionally. Write and re-write and then re-write some more. You want to compete with the big boys, don’t you? Well act like it! Don’t think sloppy editing and generic book covers will cut it when there are literally hundreds of thousands of books out there vying for the public’s attention.

Secondly, know that your e-book in particular has a very long shelf-life, so the money you invest in now has the potential to reap rewards years and years down the line.

Thanks for joining us, Yamina.
It’s been my pleasure!

Author A. Yamina Collins runs the popular literary blog She has been featured on for women in business. The Blueberry Miller Files, a collection of tales about the humor, awkwardness, and tragedy of the human condition, is her first published book. You can read parts of her book on Scribd, or buy it on Amazon.