Review by R. Devan Jensen
R. Devan Jensen is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center.
At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women is well conceived, compiled, and edited by Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, using the high standards of the Church Historian’s Press. It is also timely, being released for the 175th anniversary of the Relief Society. All of the historical introductions offer insight to the period. The nineteenth-century “discourses” do strain the definition and are sometimes shorter than their accompanying introductions, but the Relief Society material throughout is well done. Where this book really shines is the collection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century speeches, including classic addresses by Linda K. Burton, Julie B. Beck, and Sheri L. Dew. The global church is well represented with talks by Jutta B. Busche, Chieko N. Okazaki, Irina Kratzer, and Gladys N. Sitati (who is both wise and hilarious).
In my honest opinion, Francine R. Bennion’s Women’s Conference address of March 28, 1986, “A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering,” is, by itself, worth the price of the book. Bennion begins with paradoxical couplets such as Proverbs 3:13 (“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding”) and “Ecclesiastes 1:18 (“In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”). How do we reconcile these paradoxes? “Theology,” she writes, “provides a framework that binds diversity and complexity into a more simple net with which we can make some sense even of things we don’t fully understand” (215).
Citing incidents of suffering worldwide, Bennion writes, “Good theology makes sense of what is possible but also of what is presently real and probable. . . . It is not enough that theology be either rational or faith promoting. It must be both. It is not enough that satisfying theology be mastered by a few expert scholars, teachers, and leaders. It must be comfortable carried out by ordinary people. It is not enough that theology help me to understand God. It must also help me to understand myself and the world” (216-17).
She quotes the story of Jephthah’s vow and consequent sacrifice of his daughter. She then asks, “What do you think about Jephthaw, his vow, and his God? Your answer will depend in part upon your own version of theology” (219). Complex, intriguing, and open ended!
Bennion then quotes a BYU Honors student’s conception of the celestial kingdom in connection with Voltaire’s “best of all possible worlds.” What is the celestial kingdom like? she asks. “Well, there won’t be any problems,” he replies, saying that “everyone will be–happy. There wont be any unkindness. No one there will be rejected or abused, or laughed at, or ignored.”
“Oh,” Bennion said, “Are you suggesting that God experiences none of these things now?” Silence. Bennion then wrote, “In wanting to get to the celestial kingdom, these students had more awareness of traditional struggle-free utopias than of our own God and our own world” (221). Thus, our theology embraces the world as it is and our struggle to make sense of it.
“At the Pulpit” certainly complements “The Witness of Women,” by Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder. This latter book provides incredibly insightful nineteenth-century writings and speeches that can supplement the existing Gospel Doctrine manuals.