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The man behind the pen of 'Letters to a Young Mormon'

Adam Miller doesn’t think his book is for everyone.

“I don’t know that ‘Letters to a Young Mormon’ is exactly the right thing for everyone all the time to read or to hear, but I do hope that it can be the kind of thing that can be helpful to a certain kind of person who finds themselves in a certain kind of place,” Miller said when asked how he feels when he hears his book about Mormonism has helped someone.

He didn’t write it in an effort to solve all faith-based issues, concerns or doubts. Instead, he wrote it in the form of letters to his children, a daughter (who is the “S” the letters are addressed to) and two sons who range in age from 11 to 17.

And while the book is deep, as is to be expected considering the author is a philosophy professor, Miller’s motivation behind writing was really quite simple.

“I think what I hope to post is that they’ll be able to see more clearly why it is I love Mormonism so much and why I think living this kind of life is worth all the trouble and difficulty and effort,” Miller said of what he hopes his children take away from the book. “And I hope that it will prompt them to make the same decision that Mormonism … with whatever difficulties are involved in trying to live it, that it’s worth it.”

Miller, who lives in Texas where he is a professor at Collin College, speaks from personal experience as he addresses topics including agency, sin, work, history, faith and scripture. The first edition was published in 2014 but a second edition of the book will be released on Jan. 1, 2018, and includes two new chapters about stewardship and the Sabbath Day.

“It’s a really personal book for me. Even in the book itself, a lot of it is grounded pretty directly in my own personal experiences,” Miller said. “A lot of that was shaped by where I grew up as a kid but a lot of that was shaped too by my mission, by my own graduate studies and work in academia and especially maybe, it’s been shaped by my experience as a husband and a father.”

Miller, the young Mormon

As a young man growing up in central Pennsylvania, Miller attended church in “a retrofitted house.” Sacrament meeting was held in the living room, Sunday School in a bedroom upstairs and priesthood meeting in the kitchen. He and his family were part of a congregation of 50 people, and Miller became accustomed to what he calls a “kind of do-it-yourself Mormonism,” the kind of Mormonism where the church really seemed to depend on the individual's church attendance.

“On the one hand, that makes things kind of hard but on the other hand, it’s very empowering," he said. "These are things that we kind of have to figure out on our own, out there in the middle of nowhere."

It was then that he began to love being a Mormon.

“When you’re the only Mormon for miles and miles around, it feels special to be Mormon and you feel a special responsibility too, I think, at the same time, and that’s what made a big difference for me,” Miller said.

During Miller’s full-time missionary service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fell in love with the scriptures. He found himself trying to understand others’ beliefs rather than just trying to convince them to believe in Mormonism. He wanted to be able to clearly tell others what Mormonism was all about. He discovered the value of understanding the problems Mormonism solved in people’s lives as well as problems and struggles that accompanied being a Mormon. He also tried to understand the religious traditions of others.

“I think it can be really helpful to … be kind of literate religiously, to have some appreciation for Catholicism or to have some appreciation for Buddhism … to learn about other people’s religious traditions and how their practices and their beliefs help them,” Miller said. “That’s one of the things that I think has helped me the most to kind of ground and deepen my love for my own tradition is to be better familiar with other people’s.”

Miller the philosopher

Now, Miller is a professor of philosophy. He graduated from Brigham Young University with an undergraduate degree in comparative literature before going on to receive a master's degree and a Ph.D. from Villanova University. He has authored seven books, several of them focusing on the topic of grace, a topic he says has been the central theme of almost all his academic work for a decade now.

And while the word “grace” is rarely used in “Letters to a Young Mormon,” it remains the foundation for almost everything discussed in the book.

“It’s kind of there between the lines on every page,” Miller says, adding that the book is really about “kind of grappling with what I thought it meant to be perfect and what role perfection should’ve or shouldn’t play in my relationship with God.”

Miller is one of the many Mormon scholars who have contributed to an increasing seriousness regarding the intellectual side of Mormonism, seriousness he believes is unprecedented.

“I think as we’re seeing kind of from ground zero here, the birth of Mormon studies more broadly is an academic discipline that involves not just consideration of Mormon history but also a consideration of Mormon theology and a consideration of Mormon philosophy and a consideration of Mormon literature and a consideration of Mormon music,” Miller said. “This kind of bigger and rounder look at Mormonism from the perspective of the life of a mind. I think that’s something new that’s gathering steam at this particular moment in a way that is really promising, really hopeful.”

Miller the writer

The idea for “Letters to a Young Mormon” originally came to Miller when a friend and colleague wrote a book titled “Letters to a Young Calvinist.” He discovered a genre that began with a collection of 10 real letters titled “Letters to a Young Poet,” written by a German poet named Rainer Maria Rilke from 1903 to 1908. A number of titles beginning with “Letters to a Young” have followed.

When Miller read his friend’s contribution, it gave him a clear format to express his thoughts about what it meant to be a Mormon.

In the end, it only took a couple months to write the book.

“Most of these ideas are things that I’ve been thinking about and chewing on and digesting in my own heart and mind for a decade or more,” Miller said.

He uses his personal experiences because he has come to understand that many of the topics he has devoted his life to studying rest in "basic human questions."

“A lot of those questions that are on the surface are very philosophical, underneath they’re really kind of basic human questions about whether to live a life that’s good or to live a life that’s religious, a life that connects in a deep and meaningful way with God."

Miller’s book comes at a time when doubt regarding religion, though nothing new, seems to be vocalized with greater frequency, a progression he attributes in part to technology.

“The internet has made information available in a way that it never had been before,” Miller said. “Part of it also has to do with the way it has made misinformation available in a way that it never has been before … part of it has to do with … our heads but the other part of it has to do with our hearts, with our emotions, with the kind of relationships that we have with our peers and family members and the kind of immediacy of those relationships, the kind of instantaneous immediacy those relationships can have in a social media setting, such that a certain way of feeling about the church can be contagious in a way that it wasn’t before.

“I think all of those things cut both ways. They can both make it easier to get good information and to find good support when you’re in a difficult spot. And all of those things can also make it easier to find misinformation and/or find people who are going to take you in a different direction than you wanted to go.”

Miller recognizes that there are also those who argue one does not need religion in order to be a good person.

“It seems pretty clear and pretty obvious that you can live a life that’s good and be a good person and not be a Mormon,” Miller said. “But in my experience, that can be hard to do especially by yourself, without a community, without a kind of constant and intentional foregrounding in what’s involved with trying to live that kind of life, trying to live a life that’s unselfish, trying to live a life that’s built around service, trying to live a life that’s built around forgetting yourself and daily acts of devotion and scripture study and prayer, living a life that’s good, I think, is really hard to do without that kind of infrastructure.”

For Miller, the case for Mormonism and the reasons he loves it, lives it and encourages others to do so exist above the surface of its deepest doctrine.

“I think Mormonism is widely admired by people who couldn’t care less about our doctrine,” Miller said. “It’s widely admired for the kind of community that Mormonism creates and that community is at the heart of living a life that’s actually good and that’s really hard to create from scratch or to do on your own.”