It all started back in the summer of 2011. Tom Rogers and I were trading pieces of writing back and forth via email. At one point I wrote: “Have you contemplated publication of a collection of your essays? It seems to me that there could be real value in that.” Little did I know…
We tossed around ideas. I suggested BYU Studies, Signature Books, and Zarahemla Books as possible publishers. Tom started contacting people to collect copies of papers from years past. We brought in Linda Hunter Adams, a veteran academic editor and good friend of both of us — my editing mentor in college.
By the following January, the three of us were sitting with 4 paper boxes’ worth of material, including almost 150 separate items. We met at Tom’s house in Bountiful to debate our choices of Tier 1 and Tier 2 priorities for possible anthology selection. (I was, for a rare wonder, in Utah at the time.) Sometimes all three of us would agree on the status of an item; other times one or another would act as an advocate. My own initial must-include list came to 23 items, including 14 of the 30 items that finally made it into the collection.
One of the challenges was that the collection was so diverse. Items included poems, letters, interviews, journal entries, personal essays, scholarly papers, book reviews, Sacrament meeting talks, and more, on a variety of topics, stretching back over almost 60 years. Many had never been published. In making our selections, both initially and later, we were on the lookout for items offering high interest to potential readers, noteworthy insight, currency of topic, and (in combination) balance and variety.
Simply getting all the candidate files into electronic format was a major effort. One of Tom’s friends (or possibly a family member; I don’t remember which) volunteered to scan items that existed only in print, but OCR software could do only so much with faded manuscripts in multiple fonts with typed and handwritten inserts. (We were still finding artifacts of the scanning well into the proofreading stage, despite numerous readings in the interim.) Some documents made more sense simply to re-input.
For his part, Tom faced the herculean challenge of boiling down something like 400 pages of journal entries from his trips to Russia as an itinerant LDS patriarch into a manageable excerpt that captured the spirit and some of the more memorable incidents of his experiences in that calling: something we hoped would interest readers who might feel less connected to some of the more abstract, intellectual pieces. And so we all chipped away at the project.
By early 2013, we were in discussion with the Maxwell Institute at BYU, which Linda had discovered was planning to inaugurate what would become their Living Faith series: books designed to showcase the work of Mormon scholars in engagement with the gospel. Originally, it was proposed that Tom’s book should be the first in the series, although the scale of the project and the amount of work to be done ultimately made this impossible.
Out of the 30 pieces in the collection, only 10 had been previously published, though many of the others had been publicly presented and in some cases circulated widely. Reviewing what Tom had previously written, he, Linda, and I all found much to revise: for clarity, for accuracy, for stylistic smoothness. Several pieces had to be substantially rewritten. In one case, a paper Tom had originally presented with accompanying movie clips had to be rewritten to make sense without readers being able to see the videos. Several previously published pieces had large sections cut from them. A letter Tom had originally written to his department chair about his best-known (and for a while controversial) play Huebener seemed important to include for historical reasons, but also included many details that would not be relevant for most readers — and begged as well for updating in light of the 30-plus years since the original writing. And so on. Even the most polished pieces often had facts that needed updating and small errors that had slipped through the cracks.
Checking of sources was a substantial task of its own. For those who have not been involved in academic publishing, this may not seem like a big deal; but it is remarkably easy to record a quote slightly wrong, or give a wrong page number, or fail to include all the relevant publication information. The job of the editor is to provide crucial back-up in this area, including alternative suggestions and guidance in cases where for one reason or another the cited source cannot be found or is otherwise not ideal. In Tom’s case, the job was complicated by the fact that he is a wide and eclectic reader, pulling in thoughts and expressions from a myriad of sources that could not always successfully be tracked down decades later. My son Nathan, Andrew Hall, and others were brought in on this effort.
A lot of adjusting was needed to make the items in the collection fit together. This ranged from making sure the same quotes weren’t used too often (I actually started a file for tracking quotes across the various pieces) to pulling information in one case out of one piece and into another. We also had Tom write introductory blurbs for each item in the collection, adding cross-references where appropriate. Internal subheadings were added to many items: possibly my most valuable editorial contribution. Dense uninterrupted prose can be intimidating; subheadings provide entry-points for the reader.
Permissions to reprint previously published pieces were mostly easily obtained or not needed. The single exception, oddly enough, was Deseret Book, which required repeated contacts over a 6-month period (to the best of my recollection) before they actually got back to us with the relevant permissions. (I think the person who used to be responsible for this was no longer on staff, and they hadn’t figured out who was handling it now.)
And then there were those picky editorial and stylistic issues, always more numerous than anyone not experienced as an editor can possibly credit, though the Maxwell Institute house style provided an important starting point. All told, the effort involved almost 500 hours on my part, counting from the start of 2013 when I began keeping track.
Book reviewers, I suspect, may have a hard time wrapping their minds and words around this book.
Part of the reason is sheer length. At 340 pages — about 120,000 words — this is much the longest of the Living Faith series so far.
More overwhelming still is the diversity, both in topics and in document types. Many readers are likely to see the “heart” of the collection as consisting in Tom’s excellent essays illustrating how faith and thoughtful inquiry can cohabit, and discussing the creative tension between individual identity and the need for subordinating self to the community — a theme of many of Tom’s best-known plays as well. But the book offers much more than that. Here’s my own summary (with commentary as appropriate) of what the book provides:
- A testimony (actually, multiple testimonies) describing the wellsprings of a faith that grows and matures over time
- 3 poems on topics spiritual (“Limbs”), personal (“Cokeville”), and communal (“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC”)
- Letters — to a son who left the faith; to a doubting former student; to a member of the LDS Church’s Correlation Committee, arguing (back in the 1970s!) in favor of greater tolerance of those whose intellectual habits make it hard to toe the institutional line
- Essays on various aspects of gospel living: on “fate,” circumstance, and how both press home the need for charity toward those whose lives may have gone a different direction from ours; on the importance of doing some of the mundane everyday things that membership in the Church involves; on taking learning seriously; on the need for both greater spontaneity and authenticity in our religious lives; on discovering ourselves in others; on disciplining some of our own quirky and wayward impulses in the interest of getting along with others
- Examination of gospel truths, both as expressions of apparently paradoxical “continuities” (based on a talk I remember hearing when Tom was my branch president in the Missionary Training Center) and in a context of modern and postmodern views about knowledge and causation
- An exploration of how revised knowledge on gospel topics (occasioned by Tom’s reading of Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith: The First Mormon) can both challenge and refresh personal faith
- Counsel to couples considering marriage
- A testimony of the personal fruits that conversion can bring, though too often we experience them only intermittently
- Tom’s tribute to and defense of the Missionary Training Center as a place of personal and spiritual growth after serving there for 3 years as a branch president
- Memoirs of traveling among foreign lands and peoples: as a missionary, teacher, student, and traveling patriarch, in Russia and Eastern Europe, China, and India
- Reflections on the kind of realism that can make literature sacred, and on the meaning that can be extracted through close reading of sacred texts such as the Book of Mormon and the Gospel of John
- An interview about Tom’s experiences as a Mormon playwright
- Tom’s words to the cast and production staff of Huebener just before their opening night
- Investigation of themes with gospel resonance in the works of Russian writers and international filmmakers — examples of literary scholarship informed by a sensitivity to gospel truths
The very eclecticism of this collection could, I suppose, seem almost narcissistic to some readers. For me, though, that is part of its value. As with Steve Peck’s Evolving Faith collection, it’s not just about the specific insights offered, interesting though those may be. At least equally important is the process, the illustration of a life of faith and scholarship simultaneously pursued: of academic study and Church service, controversy and compliance, creativity and criticism, abstract intellectual argument and practical application. The collection presents Tom more than it presents any particular topics or conclusions.
Many years ago, as a 19-year-old missionary called to serve in Italy, I entered the Provo Missionary Training Center. Immature for my age, intellectually precocious, socially inept, I had worked hard to prepare myself for my mission; but I didn’t really fit in very well, both in ways I was painfully aware of and in ways I was too clueless to even recognize at the time.
My branch president was Tom Rogers. And that proved to be terribly important for me: not just during my time in the MTC (when, among other things, I had to cope with distressing news from home on top of a deep-seated sense of personal isolation) but after my mission as well, as a college student and young adult. Over time, I came to see Tom as someone sharing the kind of interests and personality quirks and enthusiasms I possessed — who loved books more than cars, or sports; who studied literature and hated business and saw the world as a complex place — who also had managed to make a go of life as a believing Mormon, a disciplined scholar, and (more basically) as a husband, father, and essentially competent human being.
Eventually, the hero worship faded, to be replaced by a more lasting friendship and a more realistic respect. Still, in its own way, I can’t help but see the current volume in part as my attempt to pass the gift forward. I can only hope that other readers find in this volume some of the same things I do: that is, inspiration to engage more fully with faith, reason, charity, beauty, and all those other things that make life interesting and worthwhile.