Professional book reviewers tend to present their lists of favorite books in time for their readers to buy them as Christmas gifts. But professional reviewers are not as lazy as I am. I was sleeping through most of December with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head -or I might have been, if I had any idea what sugar plums look like. When I was awake, I spent most of my time reading, so presented below are the half dozen Mormon-themed books I found most compelling during those brief waking hours.
2015 was a year in which many strange changes took place within the LDS Church, all of them without even a pretense of having been initiated by revelation from God. Today the managing director of public relations for the Church has assumed the role of Church spokesman, where once we relied -at least nominally- on the president of the Church in that role. 
 The "clarification" last month of the Church's new policy barring certain children from being baptized is a recent example, as the head of the Church's public relations arm conducted a carefully crafted interview with an apostle so low in the hierarchy, that had it not been for the recent deaths of three higher-ranking apostles, he would still be second from the bottom in seniority today. Note also that while this baffling new policy completely overrides a clear commandment which Jesus revealed to the church in 1831, there is no mention in this interview -or anywhere else- of a revelation received in which the Lord changed his mind on that doctrine. We can be forgiven for wondering why such a momentous reversal wasn't announced by the president of the Church presenting a revelation from God, rather than by means of a staged interview between a PR flack and a junior apostle.
Antidote to Mediocrity
For more than half a century we have been spoon-fed a carefully managed narrative of our history and doctrines, with the result that much of Mormonism today is markedly different from what was introduced by our founding prophet. Occasionally I will get letters from members asking me to recommend books that tell the whole story of our religion, without the spin put out by the Church Correlation Committee. I'm pleased, therefore, to present the first two books on my list as essential reading to anyone seeking to understand our religion as it was intended to be.
Preserving the Restoration, by Denver Snuffer
The first chapter of this remarkable book put me in mind of Apostle LeGrand Richards' classic A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. That book, first conceived in 1937 as The Mission of Mormonism, was an in-depth overview of Mormonism written well before the Church evolved into a global conglomerate of which religion is now only one of its many subsidiaries. With the Board of Director's current focus on investing in high-rise office buildings, upper-class housing developments, and massive shopping malls, the Corporation has abandoned any pretense of a hope in the coming millennial reign of Christ. Its investments are too long-term to abide the interruption.
In the early days of the church, the Saints were about building a Zion society. It was the crowning hope of our entire religion. Today there is absolutely no emphasis on Zion whatsoever. Our motto might as well be "We're Proudly Zero for Zion," for all it matters to the modern Church.
It was once understood that building Zion was the very reason the Lord restored his gospel on the earth in the first place. The presidency of Brigham Young represented the beginnings of a departure from that targeted goal, and things continued off track until the Saints began to simply refer to themselves as Zion. Or was it Utah that was Zion? No one really knew anymore. Was Zion a bank? The name of a dry cleaning establishment? A department store? A city center? The name was up for grabs.
Our Mormon ancestors seem to have gotten derailed somewhere on the path until eventually we all gave up trying to figure it out and became content to put it into the hands of the leaders. Denver Snuffer's book serves as a road map of sorts to put us back on track. Adapted from Denver's famous series of 10 lectures in which he re-introduced the novel idea that we ought to be consulting our scriptures for answers, this insightful tome is nothing short of a godsend for believing Mormons actually wanting to live their religion.
Teaching For Doctrines The Commandments of Men: Tradition In Modern Mormonism,
This could be rightly considered the companion volume to Preserving the Restoration. This is a book I wish I had written, and I might have if I was about ten times smarter and knew how to write something without using snark and sarcasm.
I can't say enough good things about this book. It is sorely needed in the church today. This is the book you want to leave on your coffee table when the home teachers come over, because it will spark more conversations between believing Mormons than anything I can think of. Brother Smith shows how our traditions have completely overshadowed -and in many cases completely replaced- the true doctrines Christ revealed to us in the early days of the church.
I don't like to overuse the phrase "I couldn't put it down," but I couldn't put this book down. We are losing tens of thousands of good members every year because our religion has been so watered down that there is very little substance to recommend it. The truths revealed in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants are mind-expanding, yet most of those truths are ignored as our religion's emphasis is now on the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.
I hadn't actually realized how serious the situation was until I saw the astounding number of false teachings Brother Smith catalogs in this book; false teachings that have all but replaced our reliance on the word of God. No wonder conversion rates are stagnant! We have become just another denomination among many. Our claim to being the only "true" church seems absurd to most outsiders who understandably can't tell the difference, except that our Sunday meetings are more insipid than theirs. What does our church teach that is truly revolutionary anymore? Why is the spirit of God not palpable in our meetings? Where is the joy in our worship services?
For that matter, where is the worship?
The scriptures charge us with obeying the commandments of Christ, yet very little of what we are taught in church and in general conference these days can be found in scripture or the revelations of Christ. Just as the ancient Judeans over time replaced the scriptural Torah with the Talmud, we tend to elevate commentaries on the scriptures above the scriptures themselves. Or we ignore the scriptures entirely and prefer our religion filtered through manuals, handbooks, and Church magazines.
Going to the source for our doctrine is virtually unknown in the Church today. We don't consult the scriptures for understanding; we look to the commentaries. Or we put our faith in men who quote each other quoting one another's commentaries, or who simply make stuff up on the fly. This has given us a rich tradition. But it is a tradition consisting of little but traditions. As author Robert Smith points out, tradition is sclerotic.
"Tradition has a way of being promoted to something more than it is; it becomes calcified and entrenched into the culture. When it hardens in our cultural/collective memory, it becomes something more than it was originally intended. Tradition almost always becomes policy, and policies almost always become commandments." (From the introduction, Pg 4)Or as Elder Ronald Poelman originally stated the problem in general conference,
"Sometimes traditions, customs, social practices, and personal preferences of individual Church members may, through repeated or common usage be misconstrued as Church procedures or policies. Occasionally, such traditions, customs, and practices may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles."As most of us now know, that section of Elder Poelman's talk disappeared from the official record along with many other obvious truths he presented in conference that day. Apparently someone higher-up preferred the teaching of false doctrines to true ones.
Robert Smith has written and edited a number of remarkable books, and this more than any other will wake up your friends and family members who don't yet recognize that we have a problem. But Robert does a lousy job of self-promotion. At a hefty 387 pages, the book could easily sell for $25.00 or more, but he doesn't care to make any proceeds on it so he has priced it on Amazon for just over 13 dollars, the minimum cost to produce it. He further encourages people to download the pdf version for free here, but I recommend buying the hard copy because it's a beautiful book and you'll find yourself paging back and forth in it for reference.
Oh, and if you didn't get the ramifications of the cover illustration, just think it through a bit. You may have heard of the painting of Christ on the wall of a church in Spain. (See the header illustration at the top of this page.) Over the decades the paint had been flaking off that painting, so the painting was "restored" by a woman whose tragic lack of ability was not recognized until it was too late. She did such a gosh-awful job of restoring the painting that photos of her abominable work circulated all over the internet, to both laughter and dismay.
So how does that woman's horrid attempt at retouching a classic artwork relate to tradition in Mormon thought? It has to do with what happens when some people think they know better than the artist, and set out to try and "fix" the original. Through the limits of the window of experience, along with willful ignorance of scripture and history, our Church leaders see flaking paint and decide to "fix" the doctrines, turning the church into a grotesque, comical caricature of the original.
There Are Save Two Churches Only, Volume II, by D. Christian Markham
Yet if we believe that both the Church and America were instituted at the hand of God, doesn't it stand to reason that is precisely where Satan would focus his efforts at chipping away? God was clear that He was the one who laid the foundations of our government, but can anyone truly say our government has not been corrupted? Didn't ancient Israel fall? Was not the first century Christian church infiltrated and its mission diverted? And does not the Book of Mormon prophecy that the church in the latter days would eventually be polluted? How then can we smugly assume that Lucifer has no interest in corrupting this institution?
I reviewed Volume I shortly after it was published two years ago, and I was just about to contact the author to ask him if there ever was going to be a promised second volume, when the notice arrived in my email box earlier this month. I'm delighted to say it was worth the wait; volume II is even more remarkable than the first, and that's saying something. (I see I've used the word "remarkable" to describe every book here so far, but that seems to be the most fitting description for each of them.) This book deals with corruption in both church and state, with a focus on para-politics and hidden history in every major institution, whether domestic or global. I've been an avid student of this stuff for well over thirty years now, yet Christian Markham has presented information in this volume I had not before contemplated. He's done a very thorough job of researching his topics, resulting in an A-1 publication that I won't hesitate to recommend as much as the previous two books above. The past few months have been a banner year for Mormon truth seekers, and this book is a must-have as well.
 My review of the first volume can be found near the end of this post; scroll down to the subheading labeled "Christmas Books."
Unequally Yoked: How To Preserve The Restoration And Still Save Your Marriage, by Bret and Samantha Corbridge
The best way I know how to describe this important book is to quote from the introduction:
In Mormonism today, there exists a growing number of LDS couples who find themselves in a complicated situation. Generally speaking, these men and women have been married in the temple, are active in the church, and are working to raise children in this dark and difficult world.
Although every story is unique, the basic challenge these couples face is similar. One spouse, and it can be either the husband or the wife, determines to search deeper into the gospel of Jesus Christ and the glories of the Kingdom. (D&C 42:61) He or she studies scripture and then compares the holy word of God to what the LDS Church is currently teaching. Making this comparison results in a spiritual awakening, which includes a realization of how much light and truth has been lost since the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This person may try to share their new understanding with those they love, only to find that others do not appreciate the additional perspective, and instead choose to stay in their religious traditions. (D&C 93:39)
In general, the spouse in harmony with the mainstream believes in Jesus Christ, and that spiritual safety comes in following the prophet. He or she is "active in the church." Meanwhile, the spouse who desires to reclaim and preserve the Restoration believes in Jesus Christ, and that spiritual growth comes through following the Holy Spirit. He or she is "active in the gospel."In a day when many marriages have one spouse who has stopped believing in the Restoration altogether, it seems strange that there would be problems between two people who both continue to believe in the fundamentals of the gospel; but this odd and unfortunate situation is playing out all over the church right now. Bret Corbridge, a marriage and family therapist in Colorado, is uniquely qualified to address this problem. This thin manual is essentially a Twelve Step Program for saving marriages between two people who have more in common than they often realize, and I'm happy to report that in most instances believing couples are easily finding that common ground. They may feel at first as if they belong to separate religions (and in a sense, they do), but the Corbridges, who once found themselves at odds with one another over these very issues, eventually learned there was really nothing separating them except the desire to understand. Each "step" in this wonderful little book fills about a page and a half with wise counsel geared to help bring couples back together in a godly marriage. Though one would think divisions on religious lines should be a non-issue among couples whose core religious values are virtually identical, the dichotomy is real enough for some couples. For them, this little book will bring back the happiness.
I Knew Their Hearts: The Amazing True Story Of A Journey Beyond The Veil To Learn The Silent Language Of The Heart,
by Jeff Olsen
I've been meaning for some time to do a blog post about Near Death Experiences among latter-day Saints, but it looks like I won't get to that for some time, and I didn't want to postpone recommending this particular book any longer than I already have. (It was published in 2012, which shows you how long I've been sitting on it.)
The author fell asleep one day while driving, and the resulting accident killed his wife and youngest child, wiping out half his family in an instant. He himself was seriously injured and clinically dead, at which time he found himself beyond the veil. To his surprise, he found himself face to face with his recently departed wife, who was just as surprised to see him, insisting he shouldn't be there and had to go back.
I won't go into his other experiences, because what has fascinated me about NDEs ever since I read the experience of Dannion Brinkley in Saved By The Light, is the personal transformation experienced by these people upon their return. Jeff reports having lost all fear; not just fear of death as one might expect, but all fear and anxiety over the day-to-day vicissitudes of life. Replacing that fear has been an overwhelming love and sense of connection to all other people. I got a small taste of that "mighty change" myself following my baptism of fire in February of 2007, so I'm fascinated by how these feelings play out with those who actually had the experience of crossing over.
Although Jeff remains active in the church, he reports feelings quite similar to those of other Mormons who had near death experiences. In a Youtube snippet of an interview with Dan Wotherspoon at Mormon Matters, Jeff says "I have very little interest in 'religion' after my experience; I have an increased interest in truth, in light, and particularly in love."
Before he returned to his broken body, Jeff reports an encounter with Jesus Christ, who gave him two words of counsel: "choose joy."
The final set of books I wanted to mention here is the History of Joseph Smith And The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints, edited by Dan Vogel.
This is unusual for me, because the first thing I have to admit is I haven't read these books. In fact, I'll be lucky if I ever even get to see them in my lifetime. They were put on sale December 8th in a limited edition of only 250 sets total at $1,000.00 a set. They sold out the same day to folks who had a lot more money to spend on books than I do.
This is an exhaustively researched and annotated re-pressing of what we know today as the Documentary History of the Church, and the reason it's important is Dan Vogel has dug up everything there is to know on how these histories were compiled. As we now know, after Joseph Smith's death the official histories were doctored under the direction of Brigham Young, who employed Willard Richards and others to present Joseph Smith as saying words he never spoke. (I first wrote about this unscrupulous practice here, where I included some examples of the forgeries.)
I would hope that at least some of these volumes were grabbed up by university libraries in Utah, so if you are interested in this sort of thing and want to see them, you might ask around. (Sadly, I live in California, so chances are slim these books will show up at the Sacramento Public Library.) Meanwhile, Signature Books has provided a lengthy excerpt from the introduction here.
Update January 2nd:I'm just informed that a handful of sets of these histories still remain available. As of this writing, Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City still has at least a couple of sets in stock, and Confetti Books in Spanish Fork is said to have six sets left. So if you want these treasures and have an extra thousand bucks lying around, you'd better act fast. (And if you have two thousand bucks lying around, pick me up a set too, will ya?)
Update Jaunuary 4th:
I've just learned that There Are Save Two Churches Only is available for free downloading in pdf format at the book's website, along with free multimedia material that includes audio samples from the book. I also failed to note Brother Markham priced the softcover versions at Amazon's lowest price point, and in the book's description there are coupon codes that will take the price down to around $13.00.
Well, that wraps up another year of Pure Mormonism. I'm finishing this up just before midnight on New Year's Eve. This is how I celebrate holidays now, I guess.