Monday, August 20, 2012

My "Short Form" Response to Adam Gopnik

Perusal of the online edition of the latest issue of The New Yorker indicates that the editors decided not to print any part of my letter responding to Adam Gopnik's recent article on Mormonism. The text of my submission to The New Yorker follows:

            Adam Gopnik has written an eloquent hatchet job of a profile of the Latter-day Saint faith.

             Gopnik’s inaccuracies about the Mormons’ signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, are so numerous that it is clear he has not read with any care the book on which he expostulates. For example, despite what Gopnik states, the book is not at all about “lost tribes of Israel” (a common misconception, often repeated in anti-Mormon literature). Contra Gopnik, Jesus’s appearance in the New World—the centerpiece of the Book of Mormon—is indeed foreshadowed in the New Testament (see John 10:16; in the Book of Mormon, see 3 Nephi 15:21). Most bizarrely, Gopnik states that the Book of Mormon claims that Jesus appeared to ancient Americans in Missouri, which is utterly untrue; the source of this claim may be Andrew Sullivan’s column in The Daily Beast of October 25, 2011, but this is hardly an authoritative source about Mormonism. One could go on. None of Gopnik’s inaccuracies appear in Paul C. Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography, which Gopnik references, so one can only conclude that Gopnik got his mistaken “facts” from poorly written secondary sources, or even trashy anti-Mormon literature, that he does not reference. This is just sloppy research practice for a writer.

             Gopnik’s position is that the Latter-day Saints “venerate” the Book of Mormon rather than either focusing on its actual teachings, or using it to lead to the conversion of the people who read it. Gopnik could not possibly be more wrong, as even superficial investigation would have revealed to him.

            The very day before my issue of The New Yorker with Gopnik’s essay arrived, I taught a session of the adult Sunday School class that most observant Mormons attend in LDS congregations around the world, held in this case at the Lincoln Center LDS meetinghouse in Manhattan. Unfortunately for Gopnik’s position, the focus of the entire 2012 adult curricular year worldwide is the Book of Mormon. On this particular Sunday, we spent the better part of an hour focusing on but three chapters of the scripture (Alma 40-42), occupying ourselves with what the Book of Mormon says in these chapters about the atonement of Jesus Christ, the spirit world after death, the future physical resurrection, and the nature of the final judgment—concerning which, the distinctively LDS teachings would have gotten us all burnt at the stake in medieval Europe. This same week, my son, Elder Viktor Koltko, serving as an LDS missionary in Latvia, taught missionaries in two Baltic countries how non-Mormons can use the teachings of the Book of Mormon to learn directly from God that this book’s teachings, and the LDS Church’s claims to possess living prophets, are true; as I type these words, he is teaching missionaries in yet a third country the same message. Despite Gopnik’s claims, the Book of Mormon is no mere “venerated” object to the Latter-day Saints, and specifically Mormon beliefs matter greatly to contemporary Mormons.

          So Gopnik finds the Book of Mormon boring; that’s his privilege. But each year thousands of non-Mormons worldwide find the book so interesting that they devour its message and are baptized Latter-day Saints. I’ve known people to take personal or vacation days off from work to read it; I myself took a personal retreat during my summer vacation to do so. Why? The attraction of the book for us is not its “Americanness,” as Gopnik has it; rather, the book has startlingly clear, important, distinctive things to say about many issues that are rather vaguely treated in other Christian churches’ teachings, such as the topics I addressed in my Sunday School class; many Saints find that the teachings of the Book of Mormon simply help them become better people. Readers of The New Yorker may obtain a copy and decide for themselves what value its teachings may have in their lives, whether or not they ever decide to become Latter-day Saints themselves. (Free hard copies of the Book of Mormon may be requested at, or one may read it for free online.)

             Gopnik states that “mainstream Protestants couldn’t embrace [Mormonism], and couldn’t understand it.” That was not true in the 19th century, nor is it true today, when 50% of those converting to Mormonism in the United States are Protestant, according to the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation (2008, calculated from data on p. 29).

           Gopnik states that Mormonism “has become a denomination within the bigger creed of commerce” (a further stereotype repeated recently by Bloomberg BusinessWeek). The day before my Sunday School lesson, I and some other Saints each donated a couple of hours of labor, distributing food to the poor at the Manhattan Bishop’s Storehouse, a place that serves both Mormons and non-Mormons. Each year, the LDS Church donates millions of dollars in goods, and millions of hours of labor, in domestic and international disaster relief and other charitable work, almost entirely to help non-Mormons. For example, 130,000 LDS volunteers in Brazil recently spent time over the course of five months to store 500 tons of food to help people in over 150 cities. Gopnik dismisses Mormonism as a “cult” and a “strange faith,” but this type of Christian service is far more important to the Saints, and far more central to their faith, than any of the trivial commercial interests that Gopnik mentions. For centuries, Jews have been stereotyped as being a people whose religion and culture focus on commerce; this stereotyping is contemptible, and it is equally contemptible when applied to Mormons.

            Gopnik implies that Brigham Young, the LDS Church’s second president, was somehow responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, stating that “Young was in power at the time.” By that logic, one could infer that U.S. President and military Commander-in-Chief Obama was somehow responsible for the recent shootings of Sikhs in Wisconsin by a U.S. military veteran—a claim which plainly would be madness. John G. Turner, whose book, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, Gopnik references, recently stated in a podcast on the Harvard University Press website that the evidence exonerates Young—a fact that Gopnik declines to mention. Gopnik’s implication is deeply unfair, both to Young’s legacy and to the Mormon people generally.

            Gopnik began his essay, perversely, by speaking of stereotypes as “sanctuaries as much as [jail] cells.” His essay does much to make various aspects of the popular culture’s distorted stereotype of Mormonism seem true. As an adjunct professor of psychology at various colleges, I have taught the dangers of stereotyping; as a Mormon, I very much feel myself put into a cultural cell or ghetto by the stereotypes that Gopnik perpetuates.

—Mark Koltko-Rivera, Ph.D.

The author writes the blog “The Manhattan Mormon™.” In 2006 he was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award in the Psychology of Religion from a division of the American Psychological Association. His newest book, The Rise of the Mormons, is forthcoming in late August.

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