The Book of Mammon: A Review

This review of “The Book of Mammon” is provided by David Clark

Introduction

The Book of Mammon is a unique book about Mormonism. It is part ethnographic report, part fiction, part non-fiction, part science fiction, part 19th century screed, yet completely entertaining. The book is a mixture of the serious and the farcical. In one part Daymon Smith engages in serious scripture exegesis and a few pages later he narrates a pseudo-Catholic confessional in a public restroom. While sitting on a toilet, he hears confession from a generic authority (his phrase for General Authority) in the next stall over. This happens on page 77 if you don’t believe me.

What The Book of Mammon Says

The overarching theme of the Book of Mammon is that all the fixtures of modern American corporate capitalism, mammon, have replaced wisdom, spiritual guidance, and inspiration at all levels of the Church Office Building. The church, in an effort to be efficient, has decided to manage its resources as capital and not as a spiritual stewardship. The result, however, is that the church ends up having the form of capitalism, but denies the power thereof.

Perhaps a little explanation is in order. In one section the book describes how the church designs software. This is interesting to me as I write software for a living. The book describes a planning session for new software the church was making at the time. The participants in the planning sessions were obsessed with interaction design and the creation of personas. This sounds to me like they were trying to follow the advice of Alan Cooper in his book “About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design”. Cooper’s books are well respected in the software industry and although I have never used his design techniques, they strike me as sensible. The problem with the church’s use of these techniques is that they become an end, and are not seen as a means to an end. In a for profit company, interaction design and personas are used as a means to hopefully deliver useful and popular software. But, it is the market that ultimately decides if the software will be useful and popular. There is no market for software that the church produces as they are delivering it to a captive audience which cannot choose anything else, i.e. church members do not constitute a market. Because there is no market, the tools of capitalism become an end in themselves. The software makers at the church office building see themselves as delivering quality software because they went through an industry standard process for making software. The actual quality of the software itself becomes immaterial, indeed the church really has no way of knowing if they make a quality product, because there is no market. Hence they have a form of capitalism, but deny the power thereof.

This is just a small sample of the problems the come from focusing on mammon. This same problem crops up again and again in various forms. It affects temple garment production, travel scheduling, audio visual production, language translation, sociological research, welfare allocation, printing of scriptures, and more. If you have worked for any length of time in a dysfunctional corporation, you will see familiar patterns of behavior in the Book of Mammon.

Probably the most distubing aspect of all this is how this affects the sprititual leaders of the church, the general authoties. Put simply, the brethren are not in control of the church, the church office building (COB) is. Any bureaucracy that gets big enough will start to take a life of its own and the COB is no exception. It was especially amusing to see how internal finanical politics at the COB lead to programs promulgated by general authorities at general conference. The programs were not driven by any spiritual need, but were demanded by how capital is managed and accounted for at the COB.

Another way of saying all of this, and more, is that the church is run by correlation, not inspiration. At least that’s the opinion of The Book of Mammon.

How the Book of Mammon Says What it Says

The book itself is non-linear, digresses frequently, is elliptical, and tries to distance itself from the subject at hand. The subtitle of the book is “A Book About A Book About The Corporation That Owns The Mormons” That means the books intends to be at least two levels removed from the actual subject. This I think is born of necessity, but Daymon Smith uses it as a strength.

It’s a strength because the book is entertaining and downright funny at times. Two examples will suffice. Early in the book the langauge is dense and loaded with rhetorical flourishes, reminiscent of a 19th century screeds. The language itself is entertaining as Daymon pushes language to the breaking point, which is quite funny in an of itself. However, it’s also loaded with irony as it mimics many 19th century broadsides written to attack the LDS church. The second example is starts on page 233 where the book explains how the church’s electronic records are kept. Instead of just explaining it, Daymon has the computer that keeps the records explain how it does what it does using a combination of techinical terms, ecclesiastical terms, and l33t-speak. Again, this is funny in an of itself, but the irony works on multiple levels because the computer speaks the language of correlation. The conclusion the reader is to draw is that the modern correlation/COB driven corporation has more in common with a computer than it does with a church.

In a final irony this whole mode of telling the story is itself a product of correlation. Mormons who attempt to divulge information which might be perceived as threatening to the church have evolved mechanisms for doing this without raising the ire of church authorities. In the bloggernacle anonymity seems to be the preferred option. In Mormon themed academic periodicals the use of academese and heavy footnoting is a way to make possibly threatening information appear less threatening. Daymon’s use of indirection and mixing fiction and non-fiction acheives the same end, though in a much more creative and entertaining way.

I recently read two books by/for evangelicals which I would consider similar in themes to the Book of Mammon. One was Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer and the other was The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll. Both books describe major problems in American Evangelicalism, much like The Book of Mammon does for Mormonism. However, both are straightforward descriptions that admirably get their message across. But, because neither Spencer nor Noll operate under the same restrictions as a Mormon would, they can just say what they want to say. There is no need for indirection or flowery, yet elliptical language. To me, the Book of Mammon’s biggest strength is that Daymon Smith was able to transcend his limitations, limitations that authors in other traditions don’t have, and produce a book that is funnier and more entertaining than it would have been had Daymon Smith not had those limitations.

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9 thoughts on “The Book of Mammon: A Review

  1. Thanks for the review, i will probably check it out. I think most LDS don’t have a clue what goes on in the church office building. Which I think is both good and bad. Such satire is probably very timely and maybe LDS will be open to receiving it.

  2. yes, thanks to David for writing the review. I was interested in the book, but couldn’t really wrap my head around its concept. This totally explained what I can expect.

  3. Thanks David for taking the time to work with the text, and to see the real limitations I labored under. And, for laughing.

    All I can say is, perhaps you should’ve written the summary sections of the book. You’ve grasped the core argument I try to make by various devices, some admittedly with more success than others. That you have distilled the book without reducing it, this is a significant accomplishment, as others trained in social sciences, litature, and the humanities really seem to have a hard time grasping the argument. But see David Knowlton’s review on BCC for another take on the book (and in particular, his responses in the thread), but from a perspective in Anthropology/Semiotics.

    I’ll come back to answer questions. I’d be happy to discuss the genre, style, content, etc., with any past, current, or potential readers.

  4. Here is the review Daymon mentioned
    http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/10/12/review-the-book-of-mammon-a-monograph-of-the-church-as-owned-corporation/

    After reading it, I have to really thank and commend David for writing an accessible review for people who haven’t yet read the book.

    Daymon, I appreciated your comment.
    What I encountered at the COB, and then wrote about in the Book of Mammon, deeply disturbed me. I thought Mormons should know how it runs, but I also feared harming Mormons who’d rather not know how it runs.

    That helps explain why the book is written in the way it is. It appears “fiction” is an out-clause for anyone who needs it, including yourself.

  5. Pingback: LDS & Evangelical Conversation Review « AntiMammon Today

  6. This is the first and only coherent defense of the book I have seen. You’ve inspired me to take another look. (I had given up in utter frustration.)

    daymon, you should figure out a way to link to this review on Amazon, and consider a way to print out a copy of the review and stick it inside each copy you sell.

    Nicely done, David.

  7. Randy,

    I had already put up a short review on Amazon. I edited the review to add a url to this page, but it can take a couple of days for Amazon to approve it and make it live.

    I think one of the things that might throw people for a loop is that the dense prose is concentrated in the early parts of the book. If you are getting bogged down in these parts, skip to the next chapter and then come back at read the parts you skipped.

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