It doesn’t seem to take much to publish a memoir these days: the germ of an idea, a hint of newsworthiness, a slightly unsavory life story. How else to explain Jane Barnes’s “Falling in Love With Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet”?
Barnes, a novelist and documentary writer, is clearly riding the tidal wave of interest in Mormonism that has spawned the hit Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” the now-defunct HBO series “Big Love,” and the new chamber opera “Dark Sisters.” With Mitt Romney contending to be the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be elected president, our cultural obsession with this distinctively American religion is unlikely to wane anytime soon.
To an outsider, the Mormon Church, from its embattled, polygamous pioneer leaders to its sacred architecture and complex iconography and doctrines, can seem either seductive or weird — or both. Barnes’s fascination with the subject is understandable, and it naturally deepens when she is charged with researching and writing a PBS television documentary about Mormonism.
Though occasionally eloquent and provocative, “Falling in Love With Joseph Smith” is an unsatisfying account of an unsatisfied search. The details of Barnes’s idiosyncratic pilgrimage will please neither Mormon true believers, nor traditional Christians, nor those skeptical of all unsubstantiated religious claims.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH JOSEPH SMITH: My Search for the Real Prophet
While the narrative weaves around like an inebriated driver, the central plotline is simple enough: Barnes becomes entranced by the story of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith (1805-44), who after a series of visions, finds and “translates” a set of mysterious gold plates that he publishes in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. On the road in Virginia, Barnes has a near-conversion experience, but after the welcome discovery of distant Mormon ancestors and considerable theological disputation with Mormon missionaries, her conversion stalls out.
Barnes’s personal life, another narrative thread, is something of a mess: She has divorced her husband after falling in love with a woman. That love affair lasts for a while and ends for unspecified reasons. She then rekindles a relationship with a former beau who has Parkinson’s disease, but declines to be his caregiver.
Against this backdrop, “I definitely had something I wanted from religion,” Barnes writes, “and Joseph [Smith] was religion red in tooth and claw. His story consisted of every primitive thing that went into the start of a religion: the big bang moment of God exploding through matter; an unlikely innocent’s report of the event; the instant blowback from deadbeat hoi polloi and spiritual heavy hitters.”
Unlike orthodox Mormons, Barnes believes that Smith himself planted the gold plates, but she is equally convinced that his revelations were real. “To me,” she writes, “the Book of Mormon is a strange work of God’s genius.” If nothing else, she argues, Smith didn’t have the scholarly bona fides to have invented such a story. “Joseph’s passage from near-illiterate to scriptural genius and prophet is wildly improbable,” she writes, adding: “Under the intense inner pressure we associate with budding artists, improvising recklessly and freely, Joseph parlayed a real, but evolving experience of God into an original act of religious performance art.”
Barnes, in the end, is unable to accept the central tenet of Christ as the redeemer of mankind. But, perhaps because of her own sexual fluidity, she retains a soft spot for plural marriage — officially banned by the Mormon Church and US law but still practiced by fundamentalist Mormons and other outliers.
Working on the PBS documentary, Barnes is charged with finding polygamists “who could make the best on-camera case for plural marriage.’’ In Centennial Park, Ariz., she interviews a man and three sister-wives “struggling with Joseph’s most unruly celestial aspiration” and “perfecting their love for one another and becoming gods step by step.” In that sympathetic description, one senses Barnes — once again — subordinating her critical faculties to utopian longing.
An earlier version of this story implied that Mormons are not Christians. Many specialists view Mormons as nontraditional Christians.