For my op-ed about Mormonism, I read a book by a mountain-climbing expert!
Maureen Dowd wants you to know that she’s read Jon Krakauer’s book about Mormonism. She’s really proud of this tidbit, and she cites the book — a lot — in her Sunday column . By all appearances, this is the only book about Mormonism that she’s read so far. But hey, she gets her mileage out of it, quoting Krakauer extensively on topics like polygamy and underwear and Joseph Smith as a hypnotically charming salesman. That was ten dollars well spent at the airport bookstore.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Krakauer. Into Thin Air — Krakauer’s bestseller about the fatal Mount Everest climb — was a great read. And why wouldn’t it be? Krakauer has decades of experience as an outdoors writer, he’s got an undergraduate degree in environmental studies, and he’s written prior, well-received books about survival in the outdoors.
Also, he wrote one book about Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven — and as we now know, Maureen Dowd read that book.
Of course, a skeptic might suggest that Dowd should have considered interviewing other sources. A few of her colleagues even seem to have adopted that approach themselves. David Brooks, in his own article on the Romney speech, cites to established religious scholars like Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus, and (careful, he’s Mormon!) emeritus Columbia historian Richard Bushman. (Bushman is also a Bancroft prize winner, which cancels out at least 62% of his Mormonness). Meanwhile, over in the NYT Week in Review, writer Laurie Goodstein offers a nuanced and interesting article that quotes from theologian Richard Mouw, President of the (non-Mormon) Fuller Theological Seminary.
Dowd, though, sticks to her guns: She cites Krakauer, and then for confirmation, she interviews Krakauer.
Our skeptic could also argue that Dowd should have checked out a few books in addition to Krakauer’s magnum opus. For instance, the highly regarded Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, by Indiana University historian Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon who has written about Mormon history for forty years. Or perhaps one of the biographies or studies by Richard Bushman (warning: may contain Mormon content), the Bancroft-winner whose status as a Mormon history superstar was again confirmed with his recent appointment to chair a new Mormon Studies program at (non-Mormon) Claremont Graduate University. Or maybe the short bio by (non-Mormon) star Jacksonian-era historian Robert Remini of the University of Illinois. Or even some of the Oxford-published work by (careful, he’s Mormon!) University of Richmond prof Terryl Givens. The list goes on, and on; it’s not like there is a shortage of really well-researched, well-regarded studies of Mormon history.
But then, those kinds of books — dry and boring and well-researched — are probably less likely to contain one-liners like Krakauer’s (and now, Dowd’s) “[Joseph Smith] could sell a muzzle to a dog.”
Hmm. Perhaps that’s the point?