There Are Too Many Books about the Church

Jeff Spectorbooks, education, General Authorities, Mormon, scripture, spirituality, thought 15 Comments

As I sit at the computer in my office, my back is to the 400 or so books I have about the Church in my library.

I have books written by and about the Prophets and General Authorities, Histories of the Church, Church Units and the building of the Kingdom in various geographies. Books about Temples and Temple Building.  Books which attempt to explain Gospel doctrine and principles, even untrue doctrine and books which are critical of the Church.  I have various versions and translations of the Scriptures, books that comment or explain scripture and many, many more. One of my friends once commented, “Why do you have all these books, you are never going to read them all.” Which is turning out to be true, but I have referred to many of them at one time or another. I like the feel of a real book in my hand so I often do research online and then read from the actual book itself.

Sometimes it seems that I spend a lot of time in my books and not as much time in the Scriptures.

President Harold B Lee said this:

“We have been prone in the last while to be more concerned about reading commentaries about the scriptures. But there is nothing quite so vital as taking those scriptures in our hands and reading them. [T]here is something that’s more electric, more spiritual, something that is more deeply meaningful when I read from the scriptures themselves. There is nothing so vital, so necessary today, as to ingrain in your children a love for the scriptures themselves.” (Sunday School General Conference, 6 October 1972)

I have often thought about this and wonder if we have way too many books about the Church and Church topics. That those thousands of books distract us from the books we should be reading on a frequent basis-the Scriptures.

Ironically, General Authorities and Church Scholars are major contributors to the plethora of books on the market. Even though the market for LDS books is rather small, I bet it is still big business.

And really, after the tenth or eleventh biography of Joseph Smith is written, do we really need yet another one? Just how much more Book of Mormon geography theories and explanation can we stand?

Now, I have gotten a great deal of insight from reading some of these books and gotten ideas which did truly enlighten me. But could I have gotten that with an earnest reading of the Scriptures under the influence of the Holy Ghost?

What do you think?

Comments 15

  1. Your post reminds me of a comment Hugh Nibley made back in 1993 in an interview with Student Review (the “alternative” publication distributed to BYU students off-campus at the time):

    Student Review: Are you flattered to see your name in the Xerox Apocrypha?
    Nibley: You mean that stuff that circulates around? No, I’m not at all flattered. I’m infringing on your scripture reading time.

    Being an obsessive Nibley groupie at the time, I had to acknowledge to myself that I spent far more time studying his writings than I did the scriptures. While I treasure my not unsubstantial gospel library, I have since realized that the scriptures are the fountain, with such depth and breadth that as long as I apply myself, I can always find some new insight.

  2. I’m impressed that Nibley would say that. IMO, it’s the non scriptural sources that give us lenses to interpret the scriptures, and it’s helpful (at least for me) to change my lenses quite regularly. To that end, I find Nibley, etc. quite helpful. On the other hand, reading McConkie didn’t do anything positive for my testimony, and I would have been far better off spending that time in the scriptures. Overall, I think most of us would benefit from spending less time with other sources.

    Any admins reading? I’m not sure where to post this, so I’m putting it as a comment on the most recent post. I’m having trouble accessing an excellent post from December called God’s Dilemma, at Was it taken down, or is there some kind of server error?

  3. The worst part is that to write anything you’re expected to have a reasonable grasp on the bulk of it. That’s what turns me off every time I try to put something together–the sheer mass of material, much of it repetitive, that I need to plow through. It’s like doing a master’s thesis…

  4. It’s probably bad, but I have had a hard time reading scriptures for the past year or two. or three. I can read the Bible (but not the KJV; I like NRSV best), but every time I read the Book of Mormon it bores me to tears. I just get this overwhelming sensation that I’ve read this book over and over again, and its value has already revealed itself to me. Sure there are the tiny details that I pick up here or there that I don’t remember having noticed before. And of course, you never step into the same river twice. But stepping into the same river over and over again is a pretty consistent sensation. So by and large, I’ve turned to extra-scriptural writings as a way of providing new perspectives on scripture, faith, and religion, and I don’t really feel bad about it.

  5. ariel – the article you reference was archived by the author as “private,” restricting access. I agree it was a great one.

    SteveS – I agree that some parts of the scriptures are of more interest than others. For example, I always hated the prophets at the end of the OT, and I’ve never frankly been a big fan of the BOM which has a very masculine voice, and just isn’t my kind of thing. The one part of the scriptures I always love is the NT, whether the 4 gospels or Paul’s writing.

    In general, though, I agree with the idea of the post. When I read commentaries to adopt the filter of the writer, that’s worse than just reading with my own filter. When I read commentaries to help me understand my own perspectives better, that’s the best way to use them. And I like to read both LDS and non-LDS commentaries to get a more full range of perspective. But at the end of the day, neither is a good substitute for just reading the scriptures myself.

  6. Yes, I agree. Most commentaries geared toward LDS folks are pretty sad. I can hardly stand to go into a Deseret Book anymore. However, I think if Mormons would actually read non-fluff commentaries, that it would augment their scriptural study (if used within reason). A number of factors have made many of the offerings of the last few decades unhelpful: highly popular and very literal interpretations presented in doctrinaire fashion by Fielding Smith and McConkie, the atmosphere of anti-intellectualism cultivated in the Benson administration, a Sunday School format that values class-participation over accuracy in interpretation, etc. There are OTOH hopeful signs: Brandt Gardner’s Book of Mormon Commentary looks to be just what the doctor ordered, more people reading the scriptures in multiple translations (here’s another plug for the NRSV), a somewhat more open/honest approach to Church history.

    Certainly, too much time spent away from the actual text is not a good thing. I believe, however, that if people would use sources more concerned with digging into the text than with creating warm-EFY-fuzzies by explaining how Jephthah’s sacrifice is a perfect symbol for home teaching done right, then we would be headed down the right path.

  7. This post contains the first thought from Jeff that I actually agree with. There are too many book about the Church, no question!

    As for commentaries etc. Context, and creating new contexts for reading scripture are of great importance, they inspire, change perceptions, and give scriptures a new vitality. Actually, its not commentaries that I find so engaging but rather the philosophical or theological writings of people from different traditions who have put a lot of work into the scriptures. People like Bonhoeffer, Levinas, Niebuhr, Brueggemann are all examples of brilliant thinkers who send me back to the scriptures with new eyes and real excitement. Not because they proscribe what we should find in the scriptures but because their thought is so interesting and encourages discovery.

    I’ve read a few LDS commentaries and I think their goal is to kill the scriptures in that they only repeat received wisdom and interpretations. We don’t need that. That’s what general Conference and Sunday School are for. Writing about, and for scriptures needs to be inspired in itself, deal with challenging issues, have a unique perspective, etc etc etc.

  8. Among other things, I’m a writer (four books, 150+ articles, several user manuals, etc.). Every time I’ve been tempted to write a ‘Church’ book, I go down to Deseret Book and think, no, I don’t think the world needs another ‘Church’ book.

    That, of course, doesn’t stop me from buying such books that I think are worthwhile, but I tend to buy those bringing scholarly analysis to Church-related or religious topics. I don’t have as many as Jeff, but I’m not that far behind (something over 300, about 90% of which are LDS-related, the rest dealing with other religions/traditions).

    I don’t tend to buy and read doctrinal LDS scriptural commentaries, but I do read what I consider to be scholarly ones. ..bruce..

  9. Post

    “That, of course, doesn’t stop me from buying such books that I think are worthwhile, but I tend to buy those bringing scholarly analysis to Church-related or religious topics. I don’t have as many as Jeff, but I’m not that far behind (something over 300, about 90% of which are LDS-related, the rest dealing with other religions/traditions).”

    The best thing that happened to me is that I no longer travel to places that have a DI. I bought many, many books there. I am also a bit more discerning about the ones I acquire. After the LDS books, the largest collect is Judaica and books about Judiasm and Christianity, family history and then some Christian commentaries. I do find some value in the Christian commentaries as they have allowed me some insight into where some of the doctrinal ideas come from.

    To Annon. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  10. I think that some books (commentaries or just general ideas) unlocked the scriptures for me. I never enjoyed them until I learned to read them closely while being able to see how or why people have said what they said about them. So perhaps this feeling of too many ‘Church Books’ is a result of moving beyond that crutch, if thats the right word. For me I think there are too many, and certainly too much repetitive junk. Yet, I am not done with reading the ones intrigue me and that I feel might benefit me in my understanding. I guess I hope that I will be either be able to listen to the spirit keenly enough or be able to be a reliable interpreter in the future at some point; but at the moment I still feel that some Church writers at least have some benefit for me.

  11. I think a case could be made that there are too many books discussing Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Islam, etc. Not all of them are of the same quality.

  12. I don’t think the number of books is the issue. I am also not of the opinion that there is something mystical, spiritual, etc, about the text itself, ie the ink on the page of your scriptures. I think the real issue is the quality of books about the Church and the scriptures. When dealing with a quality exegesis on the scriptures I am not sure why that would be inferior to reading the scriptures themselves (I am assuming you have read the scriptures at this point and have a general familiarity with their contents), or how that somehow makes the Holy Ghost less operable.

    I do share the general disgust expressed here by others with regards to entering a Deseret Book Store. This is because most of what they publish is just EFY fluff, even at the adult level. I think the comment made by SteveS about entering the same river twice, was a good response to a poorly applied cliche`. Naturally for most of us who are not professional scriptorians, study aids which illuminate historical/cultural/linguistic nuances allow us to benefit from the hidden treasures of knowledge which formerly was reserved for the ministry. This only works though if we are recieving truly quality, intelligent stuff. The last thing we need, and the first Des. Book seems to have to much of is works that amount “Johns thoughts on the Scriptures, Gospel, and Atonement, after selling auto insurance for thirty years”.

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