The January/February 2006 issue of Books and Culture includes two book reviews on Mormonism: The Rise of Mormonism by Rodney Stark, and Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman (my review of this book is available in a previous post). Both are now available online.
Gerald R. McDermott reviews The Rise of Mormonism in "Saints Rising: Is Mormonism the first new world religion since the birth of Islam?". Stark, the author of the book, is the scholar who made the famous claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will soon become the next world religion (comparable to that of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). This prediction is renewed in his latest book. McDermott responds with a certain amount of skepticism, seeking to assess the likelihood of Starks' prediction. While McDermott believes that it is possible, he also sees some serious obstacles. His interaction with Stark is helpful (even if I do not hold to McDermott's optimism regarding the relationship between Mormonism and historic Christianity).
In the same issue, Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp reviews Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling in "Who's That on the $50 Bill? Placing Joseph Smith in America's story." She assesses Bushman's biography in light of the author's goals, which she summarizes in the following way:
Bushman, equally at home within the university and the Mormon tabernacle, has three essential goals in this work. First, he seeks to explore faithfully the story of Joseph Smith's life. He attempts, in his words, "to think as Smith thought" in an effort to explain his actions and the development of the Mormon movement between 1820 and 1844. Second, Bushman strives to present an apologia to a secular (and most often hostile) world. Thus, he labors to convey the reasonableness, coherence, and historicity of Smith's doctrinal world. Finally, Bushman wants to legitimate Smith's importance beyond the Mormon world by situating him within a pantheon of American icons, as well as within broader intellectual currents of Western civilization. Bushman wants to make Joseph Smith more than Mormon.
Does Bushman accomplish his goals? Maffly-Kipp gives a mixed answer. She also points to the historiographical problem that Bushman strives to overcome in his work. Seeking to straddle the sacred/secular divide in his approach to Joseph Smith, Bushman argues for both sides. As Maffly-Kipp says, "Bushman would, I suspect, say that Smith was both a genius and divinely inspired, and was engaged in different revelatory modes from pure revelation to milder inspiration." She criticizes this conclusion, seeing no reason to support Bushman's distinctions. I agree, and I find Maffly-Kipp's review insightful.