Pile of letters

Mormonism meets Buddhism in Miller’s ‘Letters’

Adam S. Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon might have been better titled How To Be a Mormon Without Thinking or Talking Like One.

A very brief book (about the length of a long article in The Atlantic), Letters takes the form of, duh, letters written to young adults, especially those who are unlikely to be content with the type of Mormonism that puts its emphasis on following rules and sticking to convention. The second edition of the book, published in 2018, includes chapters (more like blog posts) on environmental living and the Sabbath as well as a few expansions such as one telling LGBT persons that the Church can’t be complete without them.

Traditional Mormons may find the book off-putting, and not just because he uses strong words in pointing out how church leaders, including Joseph Smith, have been seriously flawed: Miller’s Mormonism is not the type of Mormonism, the kind often heard from Sunday pulpits, in which the ideal life is full of certainty and obedience is the highest virtue. In places, the book is more than a little Buddhist with its emphasis on the search for personal truth and meaning in the now: “When you experience fear or shame or guilt,” he writes, for example, “your job is to practice care for them as well. Don’t hurt yourself with them. Let the guilt and fear come, let them go, and learn what they too teach about the root of life.” At one point he even gives a brief lesson in mindfulness (although he doesn’t use that word) and focusing on the breath.

I found Miller’s chapter on the scriptures most compelling: He takes an expansive view of what scripture is, urging the reader not just to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but to deeply study them as well as the works of Plato, Confucius, Laozi and Dante, among others. Our task is to “translate” in the same way that Joseph Smith “translated” the Bible, using our studies as a means to receiving personal divine guidance rather than relying on the church to do the work for us.

I found his chapter on sex the weakest one. I got the impression that he couched his words too carefully to avoid saying directly that in today’s world, it is all but inevitable that teens or young adults will break the law of chastity (the Mormon prohibition on extramarital sex), lest preaching grace will be seen as a license to sin.

Miller’s book isn’t an apologetic one; his aim here isn’t to get people to join the Church or even necessarily to stay in. But for those who are already in the Church, Adams offers a path to discipleship and fulfillment far more robust than in Mormonism as it is typically practiced.

Photo by Miriya Chorna, CC BY 2.0

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