A Twenty-Something’s Guide to Spirituality, Edited by Jacob Werrett & David Read
Reviewed by Catherine K. Arveseth
Not to be Missed
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I am so glad I didn’t overlook this book! It lay dormant in a stack of “possible reviews” for too long. When finally, I picked it up, I was taken by the subtitle – “Questions You Hesitate to Ask, Answers You Rarely Hear.” My interest was stirred.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was in my twenties; I definitely had questions then. And what kind of answers could be shared that I hadn’t heard before? My interest deepened. I read the preface and was hooked.
This is a one-of-a-kind book. It haltingly captures the perplexities that confront us in the college years but does so with refreshing honesty and a faith component that denotes real desire to perform God’s will. Before launching into a discussion of the book’s topics, contributors, and how every bright mind ought to read Werrett and Read’s book (not just twenty-somethings), let me explain the process of its creation. It is a brilliant Q&A pursuit.
Questions You Hesitate to Ask
Jacob Werrett, Juris Doctor student at the University of Connecticut School of Law, and David Read, law student at the University of Houston Law Center, are both successful and accomplished thus far in their academic and professional careers. For two years, Werrett and Read gathered questions from LDS students in varying fields.
They asked them: “If you could ask any question of a prominent LDS scholar, what would it be?” Students across the nation responded. Their answers were returned in essay form. According to Werrett and Read, “Their essays help crystallize the common questions and concerns found among Latter-day Saint college students” (viii).
The student essays are profound and pointed. They seep with intelligence and light, and will resonate with any student of spirituality. Here are a few of the questions they asked:
- How can I become scholarly while remaining meek and teachable?
- As a female, to what extent should I pursue an education?
- What is the relationship between truth, knowledge, and faith?
- How do I share the truths I know with someone who does not speak a spiritual language?
- What is the Lord’s role in my agency?
- How does one cultivate balance between the intellectual and the spiritual?
- What are we to do when the promised blessings of gospel living seem not to come?
“Determined to unearth universal answers to these individual questions, [Werrett and Read] turned to respected LDS authors and scholars found in both academia and the Christian community” (viii). Werrett and Read write, “Everyone we approached held an advanced degree; additionally, all of them were experienced, devoted, and determined disciples of Jesus Christ” (viii). In Werrett and Read’s words, “this compilation combines thoughtful questions from students with answers from those who know” (viii).
So who are those who know? Contributing authors are the late Neal A. Maxwell, Philip Barlow, Susan Easton Black, Kim B. Clark, James S. Jardine, Truman G. Madsen, Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Virginia H. Pearce, and William Hayes Pingree. The names are familiar. These contributors offer solid doctrine and truth from many sources. Their thoughts are sound; their spiritual guidance astute and their answers are rich with perspective. All of their experience and advice is offered within the scope of an eternal learning plan.
Werrett and Read’s goal was to construct a healthy relationship between faith and reason. They write, “As eager students, we enter the lecture hall with the hope of learning and increasing in knowledge. In turn, the teachings sounding from behind the lectern may well bring a host of questions, rather than fixed answers” (viii).
Steven Sharp Nelson humorously explains this dilemma as part of his essay question in a chapter titled, “Nine Reasons for Learning to Learn” (answered by Truman G. Madsen).
It was probably about the time my professor began bearing his testimony of capitalism that I began to question the spiritual significance of my “collegiate” experience. He had already marked himself as a man against religion – although he quoted the Bible once, but only as a preface to a statement that the words of the Bible can be beautiful, even if you don’t believe it. He went on to testify that capitalism reigned supreme, whether we would admit it or not. We would one day realize that the conspicuous consumption of “stuff” is really all that we are about.
Yes, I think that was about the time I questioned why I was paying for this sort of education – in fact I questioned why I was even wasting my time when there were much more important things to study and learn .They call this higher education? I asked myself what this had to do with my eternal destiny (95).
A stellar insight found within Camille Fronk Olson’s essay (answer to the topic of LDS Women and Education) sheds light on Nelson’s experience. Olson writes,
As mindless activities become increasingly available, the attraction to “veg out” in front of the TV, surf the Internet, or endlessly telephone (or Internet) chat for no particular reason can be intoxicating. Thinking and visualizing from words and abstract ideas is hard when once is accustomed to finding life’s answers through fashion trends, pop culture, and neighborhood gossip.
Likewise, it is easier to attend a fireside or class where emotional stimulation is the draw than one where the audience is invited to consider a different perspective and explore what they really understand and believe. For example, educational maturity is evident in the ability to become completely engaged in a lecture where the presenter has a completely opposite viewpoint from mine. Yet I can come away fed and enlightened because the presenter’s cogent thinking helped me to better crystallize my own beliefs by contrast and to articulate them more clearly (62).
By the end of Olson’s essay (third chapter), I was in serious reflection. Where was this book when I was in my twenties? My college experience would have been much richer had I garnered this perspective. I would have been more open, less threatened by differing opinions. And this is only one of many eye-opening insights shared within the book.
Werrett and Read recognize that the college experience represents “perhaps the most crucial time of life for the student to receive doctrinal direction and academic answers” (vii). Their desire is to “reconcile education with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and ultimately sustain President Gordon B. Hinckley’s challenge to ‘rise up and discipline [ourselves] to take advantage of educational opportunities'” (ix).
Answers You Rarely Hear
I admit it – I read the chapter on LDS Women and Education first. Upon seeing the title, I stopped immediately and began to read. I devoured it. This chapter alone makes the book invaluable – for both women and men.
What aspiring female LDS student hasn’t wondered how to best choose a career path while keeping in mind her priority of marriage and family? The balancing act, the cost factors, the question of “can I have it all?” Most women have been there! As for the men in our lives – this topic is for them as well because their influence is so significant. I read Emily Mabey Swensen’s essay question with admiration and ringing timbre.
Swensen is working on a Master of Writing and Publishing at Emerson College in Boston. She begins by explaining that her dad had more formal education than her mom, but she learned more about continuing education from her mom. Her parents had four daughters and no sons. She writes,
I don’t think it occurred to them to limit our aspirations to domestic pursuits. We talked around the dinner table about serving missions, going to graduate school, and dreaming big dreams as much as any family of boys might have. We also talked about getting married, having kids, and being home with them.
In our house and in our minds, these goals were not mutually exclusive. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage the details, but I was sure I could be a Supreme Court Justice, Relief Society President, and Terrific Mom all in time, if not all at once (47-48).
Swensen then poses her question.
At thirty, I have been Relief Society president of a struggling ward, and am working at the Mom part. After a few years home with my children, I find that the Supreme-Court-Justice desire still lives within me. And now I stand at a crossroads. As I consider law school, I am torn between the desire to follow that dream and the needs to support my husband in these important years of his career and to spend my hours with my small children. I realize what a great gig it is to be the full-time parent, and I’m not willing to give it up. I guess I’m still hoping to have it all. But can I?
.We as LDS women often judge rather than support each other in this subtle balance between aspiration and family. So, from time to time, my confidence is shaken and I find myself wondering: Should I continue my educational pursuits, even if I can’t be sure how I’ll use them throughout my life? (48-49).
What a question! This one is inadequately answered in this review by quoting in part from Camille Fronk Olson’s response. But by sharing Swensen’s question, readers can sense the uncertainty and emotion tied to the choices women now face. With abounding opportunity come difficult decisions.
Olson’s answer is perfect. She shares doctrine that falls into the category of “answers you rarely hear,” yet leaves the reader with appreciation for continuing education in both formal and informal venues. She points out that “learning skills to prepare for a salaried occupation is a side benefit of education, not the core purpose” (54). She also reminds readers, “In the end we will discover that our education is not for our own merits and pursuits but for the Lord’s purposes” (54). In conclusion, Olson writes:
We can help both young men and young women see that marriage and motherhood are not the end of education for a woman but in many ways the beginning of their need to apply educational skills to finally study in the most meaningful ways . we can communicate that education is as valuable for women as for men, whether a woman marries early in life, later, or not at all .
Every family benefits from two parents who have developed the skills and motivation to continue their education when no homework is assigned and no public recognition is promised. In so doing, we will be prepared to answer in the affirmative whenever and in whatever capacity God calls us to serve, knowing He will continue to teach us along the way (66-67).
Every woman and man ought to read this chapter. An honest discussion of the topic has been too long in coming. Olson’s counsel gels all that I have heard before (and then some) in a comprehensible, empowering way.
A Few More Snippets
To give you a taste of the other “rare answers” supplied, I share a few more excerpts.
In answer to Aaron Titus’ question (Juris Doctor, George Washington University Law School) about how we understand the delicate relationship between evidence and faith, Robert Millet writes,
While we seek to make friends and build bridges of understanding where possible, we do not court favor, nor do we compromise one whit on what we believe (41).
In the end, the only way that the things of God can and should be known is by the power of the Holy Ghost (42).
The things that will profit us everlastingly are not the power to reason, but the ability to receive revelation; not the truths learned by study, but the knowledge gained by faith; not what we know about he things of the world, but our knowledge of God and his laws (45).
Lorin Pace (Master of Business Administration, Harvard University) asks, “As the collegiate barrage of ideas and impressions intensifies, tradeoffs become opaque. The intuition required to thrive amidst this chaos must be forged in the confluence of the mind and the spirit. How does one cultivate balance between the intellectual and the spiritual?” (133). I love that idea – the confluence of mind and spirit. Philip Barlow responds.
There are those who enroll to get a degree – literally. The credential they pursue will, they believe, widen their chances for obtaining a better paying job. Because graduation is their primary goal, they approach it in the most efficient way they can envision: taking the fewest and easiest courses they can get by with, or taking implausible overloads during several terms (while working considerable hours for pay) to shorten the process. They seek a certificate, not an education, and they value grades more than wisdom. Such “students” are not really “in” but merely “at” college. They will have little interest in the essay that follows (134).
Faith is a necessary and precious thing, the first principle of the gospel. I sympathize with this impulse to protect it at any cost. However, spiritual and mental tragedy can come not only through loss of faith, but also through inauthenticity, ignorance, and fear. Faith does not exist in a vacuum, and not all faith is healthy or righteous. After all, terrorists, on the basis of faith, fly airplanes into tall buildings filled with innocent people. What is wanted is not the rigid, uninformed, closed, and cocksure faith-assertions of the fanatic, but a thoughtful and open trust, and organic and living faith, born of love and welcoming of growth, inquiry, new perspectives, and adjustment (138).
Virginia H. Pearce answers Kimberlee James’ question of agency (Master of Social Work, University of Utah). James asks, “Why does the Lord give stronger answers to some questions than others? Are there circumstances when the Lord really doesn’t care what I choose to do? How much does He leave up to me?” (120-121). Pearce answers.
Now, you are saying that some decisions have more power to destroy our happiness than others. Careers and paying off debt are one thing, but choosing a marriage partner is another. I cannot diminish the importance of that choice. Personal happiness and the good of future children are at stake. However, look again at the doctrinal premises. Life isn’t just about happiness; it is about developing godlike attributes. And it always includes agency – our own and others’ (128).
Many young adults looking on may be fearful to make marriage decisions of their own, concluding that because happy marriages cannot be guaranteed, it is better to remain unmarried. Remember our foundational doctrines? Faith, not fear, must rule as we make decisions. We must believe, really believe that even if the unrighteous choices of others result in unhappiness for us, God can still pour out his blessings upon us, consecrating our suffering to our welfare – and yes, to our ultimate happiness (129).
Kudos to Werrett and Read
What more can I say? The book stands on its own. It goes down on my list as one of the best published books in 2007 (sorry I didn’t get to it sooner!). Its influence moves beyond the twenty-something crowd. All gospel students who desire knowledge now and for eternity will enjoy delving into these pages.
Kudos to Werrett and Read for the idea and execution. Deepest thanks to the students who supplied their most honest, soulful questions. And to the contributors? Your answers gave the book breath, illuminating a higher road with much-needed perspective.