Falling in Love with Joseph Smith

My Search for the Real Prophet

By Jane Barnes

Tarcher/Penguin. 294 pp. $25.95

Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, was undeniably a fascinating character during a brief lifetime (1805-1844) that ended when he was murdered by a hateful mob of non-Mormons. Smith's legacy continues to fascinate, perhaps especially right now with a Mormon seeking the presidency of the United States as the Republican candidate.

It turns out that Jane Barnes (born 1942), a novelist, essayist, and documentary film script writer, is just as fascinating as the subject of her new book. Well, "subjects," not just the singular noun. The book Barnes has written is difficult to classify. At the very least, however, it focuses equally on two people: Smith and herself, making it part biography and part autobiography.

The book is endlessly captivating, and ought to appeal to readers whether they are Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics - or Mormons. Part of the appeal is Barnes' skill as a writer. She is inventive with language, but that inventiveness never strays into puzzlement for readers. You can bet I will dip into her two published novels (Double Lives and I, Krupskaya: My Life with Lenin) when I can find the time. Maybe they are as well written as this new book and if they are, I want to experience them.

Although Falling in Love with Joseph Smith is about religious faith, Barnes does not try to nudge anybody toward belief in the divine, nor toward nonbelief. As a religious studies professor tells her, "Faith has nothing to do with intelligence. If you believe, there will always be people smarter than you who don't. If you don't believe, there are always people smarter than you who do."

The founding narrative of all organized religions seems peculiar when analyzed according to logic; to many who have studied the founding narratives, the Mormon faith seems the most peculiar of all: an uneducated young man nearly 2,000 years after Jesus Christ finding gold plates on a hillside in Upstate New York, discerning that the plates contained commandments from God, and then translating the commandments into English? Really? Then Smith organizes believers to follow him all the way to Independence, Mo., because they accept his premise that it is somehow akin to a promised land. When Missouri turns out to be unaccepting, the believers willingly relocate to Nauvoo, Ill., where again they encounter violence, so they trek to Utah despite the indescribable hardships. Really?

Mark Twain skewered Mormonism in his writings - some of which Barnes quotes - and so have many other influential commentators. (Barnes brilliantly compares Joseph Smith at times to the Twain characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.) Yet despite the Twains of the earth, Mormonism has grown from a goofy-sounding practice into a worldwide religion, and the growth continues.

Barnes learned the Mormon dogma well while researching the foundation of the faith - and its many offshoots, a few of them grounded in violence - for a Public Broadcasting System documentary. She found herself attracted to Smith's teachings, his passion for life, his breaking of social conventions as well as religious conventions.

Reared as a secular Episcopalian within a prominent American family, Barnes broke away from the family's expectations and was already experimenting with different faiths by the time she encountered Smith's eventful life and death. Barnes had given birth to children spawned during a heterosexual marriage, had entered a committed same-gender relationship later, and then had entered an apparent Platonic relationship with a male even though his death-to-come from Parkinson's disease freaked her out.

Barnes' various forms of published writing contained experimental elements, too. Even her entry into the television documentary realm during 2003 that led her to research Smith's life derived from Barnes' relentless exploration. And her quest for the right mix of spirituality in her daily life made Barnes open to Smith's journey without making overly quick judgments.

"Meeting the early Joseph fresh in middle age was like drinking from the fountain of youth," Barnes comments. "I was smitten by the boastful boy who looked into magic stones to track treasure chests zooming around beneath the earth . . . Joseph's holy fairy tale seemed like a gospel written by Mark Twain."

Part of the mystery surrounding Barnes as she explores the mysteries of Smith is why she would seriously consider becoming a Mormon. After all, she is a bisexual feminist examining a religion that excludes women from leadership roles and opposes gay marriage. Barnes does not dodge those seeming anomalies in the book, to her credit.