Channeling Jane Barnes

In August, Charlottesville author Jane Barnes published her third book, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet. She has written for films and publication and has two novels: I, Krupskaya, and Double Lives. Falling in Love with Joseph Smith is her first full length work of non-fiction.

She describes the book as a spiritual memoir wrapped around a biography of Joseph Smith. Though the book has landed fortuitously in the middle of the “Mormon moment,” it has nothing to do with either Mitt Romney’s campaign or the Book of Mormon, the long-running Broadway musical. Her passions for religion and Joseph Smith were kindled by her work as a documentary film writer for PBS. In 2000, she co-wrote Frontline’s “John Paul II: Millennial Pope” with producer, director Helen Whitney. Their next film was a series on “The Mormons” for Frontline and American experience in 2007. The subject grew in part out of Jane’s fascination with Joseph Smith – a fascination which culminated in her considering conversion to the Mormon Church after the film was finished.

I met with Jane the day before her launch reading at the New Dominion Book Store in mid-September. She poured cups of coffee as we talked in the kitchen of her Belmont home.

SL: Jane, I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading Falling In Love With Joseph Smith. I think I came to your book with the notion–who is this crazy guy with the weird religion and why has Jane Barnes flipped out? Why do you find Joseph Smith so compelling?

Jane: The odd thing about it was I had a strong reaction to him from reading a description in a book that was trying to debunk him. It seems amazing to me. I am reading about a character in a history book. The author is trying to show he’s sort of beyond the pale, and I flip for him. I thought he was great. Joseph was a boy who was very much as I’d been as a girl—a kid that who felt the grownups didn’t know what they were doing.

If he had been in my neighborhood I would have been the first girl who wanted to go along. Actually I would want to be a co-disciple. (She laughs). I could found a religion too! Joseph was born in 1805. He was a frontier boy: fresh, starting out anew in every area of life. I was moved by him because he was a religious person, but his behavior was both experimental and down-to-earth.

When he was a young boy, eight, nine, ten and eleven, he was playing with peep stones. He was involved in the magic culture of the time. His family moved around a lot before ending up in Palmyra, New York. And everywhere they moved there was a magic culture all around. People using peep stones — opaque stones which could be used to figure out where gold treasure was buried. I felt instantly that my whole childhood was bereft because as a child I had not had a peep stone. I would have loved a peep stone. I would have loved having a world filled with physical spirits and signs. We tried to re-invent the world, but we already had TV.

For Joseph, the invisible world was all grist to his imagination — not just as a naïf but as a questing person. The presence of magic did not prevent the world from being religious. The magic around him may have made people more religious.

SL: Were his family church goers? What church did they attend?

Jane: His family was very religious, but unconventional. Joseph’s father never joined a church. He had amazing dreams about finding the right church. His mother converted to a Presbyterian church. I think two of her sons followed, though not Joseph. He attended a Methodist Church for a while. Joseph’s family read the Bible and constantly discussed what Christianity should be according to their own independent lights. His family’s focus on what religion meant to each of them helped Joseph develop. He wasn’t stuck in the magic culture. He had encouragement to pursue his religious calling. He moved from peep stones and buried treasure to learning to seek God to wondering who God was and what God wanted from him.

SL: In your book you mention the surge of religious revivals in upstate New York where Joseph’s family lived. That area was known as the ‘Burnt-over’ district because the religious revivals scorched the earth with such passion. Do you think the revivals played a significant part in Joseph Smith’s development?

Jane: Remember this fact about that time. There was no state Christianity. It’s the first time the Christian religion was not part of the state since Constantine had made it thus in the 3rd century. Religious freedom meant you could practice your religion as you wished. But it also meant Christianity was up for grabs. The revivals were part of the different sects competing for attention with their different theologies and rituals.

Joseph had mixed feelings about these revivals. He saw that people converted one day but then were back to their old sinful un-revival selves the next morning. And also, he felt the conversions which stuck turned people into narrow partisans for their church. The churches were like different teams. He wasn’t that into the revivals.

SL: Why is Mormonism referred to as Restored Christianity? And did Joseph add any new concept to Christ’s teaching?

Jane: In this time when Christianity was up for grabs there was a strong movement back to restore the actual Christ. Joseph’s father was very into the idea of returning to the simplicity of Christ’s time and true teachings.

I think Joseph realized that this longing to return to Christ’s time had no real possibility. You can’t go back. People can’t put on sandals and wear robes and be truer to God somehow. You can’t be those people. You’re stuck in your period. Joseph understood that you couldn’t restore Christ, not just because it was an unreal longing, a form of nostalgia, but because Christ had been going through centuries of change. Among other things, Christ had said he would come back and he hadn’t. People in Joseph’s time were very focused on the idea that the world would end soon, and I feel he absorbed this not as a ironclad belief, but more as a question about how Christ could be renewed for modern people.

The restoration of Christ was there all round him, but I don’t believe Joseph wanted to restore Christ. He wanted to give the world a new, living Christ. It comes out in the Book of Mormon through his own very original revisioning of the Christian tradition. The Book of Mormon is a Christ-centered book, but it is a subversive work.

SL: You devoted a chapter in your book to the Book of Mormon. Your discussion fascinated me. You described Joseph as “swinging tradition by the tail.” What do you mean?

Jane: The Book of Mormon is really hard to read. Outsiders always complain about it. To begin with it is written in this pseudo King James style. But there are other strange things about the Book of Mormon. It starts in 600 B.C. before Christ, but people at that time already know that Christ is going to come. We have to go for century after century with
these people coming from Jerusalem to the New World and having all these fights, rising up and falling down and fighting, and in between disasters and family reunions, people prophecy and agree that Christ is coming. He is always coming in the years ahead.

SL: I find this exciting because you’re bringing literary analysis to scripture. You’re showing how Joseph’s scripture has literary structure which is something I never thought of—something we can respect.

Jane: And for me, seeing Christ’s new role in the Book of Mormon really made me respect Joseph’s scripture as scripture. I can’t tell you how many times I started it and it just didn’t make sense to me…I did not know what to make of it. Not only is the story constantly predicting that Christ is going to come but when in fact he does finally show up, the important stories like Christ’s birth in the manger and his death on the cross, the Crucifixion — those stories take place off stage….so we never see them. So it’s like the Book of Mormon is saying, forget those stories…don’t worry about those…we’re going to get to something else.

And the story Joseph contributes to Christian scripture is the story of Christ coming to the New World of the Americas during his Resurrection. Christ has been given new life. Literally. He’s had a new part of his life added on to him, added on to the whole story!

When I first read it, it was so eccentric, I thought some kind of irreverent boy said, Now, okay, we’re going to have Christ come to new world. I thought here is some eccentric boy randomly fooling around. But then I began to realize that in the book it’s very carefully prepared for. You get a sense of this is what we’re going to look at. Christ’s new life is carefully designed and prepared for in a literary way. And its meaning is very carefully built up. It’s like Joseph’s saying all along the way, The old Christ story is done now. This is the new Christ that you must now look at.

When we meet Christ in the Book of Mormon his death on the cross is behind him. Christ is free. The Bible which had been closed has now been opened again so that we can have a new living Christ. He is not coming back to oversee the end of the world. Christ has come back to be part of the world again. To show people in a new country, under a new kind of government how to be new Christians. This is radical. This is like the Declaration of Independence for scripture.

I do think you can make the connection between the intuitions, the revivals, and the dreams and all the things going on around Joseph, including the doubts…all of this had gone in and mixed with some supernatural power beyond him and come out as this narrative. Joseph had only had three years of education. He couldn’t have come up with this new, free Christ on his own. He was not that kind of thinker. Basically the Book of Mormon is a Back to the Future for Christians. The narrative goes back and changes the past so the present can be different. Christ can once again be the living Christ.

SL: Maybe I should have asked you this earlier. Did you become a believer? Did you convert?

Jane: I didn’t join the Mormon Church, but I investigated with the missionaries. I was really wowed by Joseph, as I’ve said. I wanted to keep that relationship to him. I loved going to the Mormon Church. The services are organized around personal testimonies, and I was very touched by peoples’ stories of their encounters with God. The Mormons were very welcoming. I enjoyed Gospel principles’ class, though I felt uneasy about questioning doctrines like same-sex marriage. I could be freer with the missionaries whose whole life is dedicated to exploring Mormon doctrines with people who might convert. In the end, I felt the contemporary LDS Church was too strict for me. I didn’t join, but my life was changed by my encounter with Joseph and the Book of Mormon. I felt connected to God again. My childhood feelings of religion came back to me and were able to grow through the kinship I felt for the young Joseph and the respect I felt for the Book of Mormon. It’s meant that I’ve hunted around for a church I can attend, and I think I’ve found it in the Sojourner’s United Church of Christ.

SL: Well, we didn’t get to what many people might want to know. How do you think Romney’s faith might affect him in the Presidency?

Jane: As a matter of fact, I put most of my thoughts about that in the article I gave Streetlight for its Fall issue. The title pretty much says it all: “Why Mitt Can’t Talk About Mormonism.” I hope your readers will find it illuminating.

Trudy Hale, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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