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A Disciple's Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell Hardcover – April, 2002
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Maxwell's parents provided regular exposure to religious ideas, writings, and leaders. Young Neal did not always have a taste for church meetings, however--a weakness he overcame. From military service in the Pacific during World War II, he learned to find strength from prayer and to lead older and more experienced soldiers. His leadership development continued into his Canadian missionary years. We also learn about his marriage and experiences as a college student. One theme emerged in his studies that would remain strong throughout his career--the thoughtful integration of "sacred and secular" perspectives.
After college graduation, Maxwell worked as a senator's aide and contemplated a career in the nation's capitol. But his strong identity as a "Utah man" convinced him to return to his home state. Maxwell then worked at the University of Utah, as Dean of Students and as a university vice president. He then made the shift to the white shirt and tie culture of the LDS Church, holding positions such as Commissioner of the Church Education System. Building upon his experience as a church employee, Neal Maxwell was called to become one of the General Authorities of the Church. Since then his distinctive styles of writing and speech--particularly his playful and periodically painful alliterations--have become widely known.
This biography includes inspiring achievements, glimpses of church leaders' personalities, and amusing anecdotes. Everything pretty much expected from a biography one church leader writes about another. To the author's--and subject's--credit, it also candidly addresses some personal faults. By many accounts Maxwell's intelligence was coupled with an impatience for those who thought or acted more sedately. His preference for structured dinner discussions wasn't to everyone's liking--causing one friend to ask why he couldn't just let his guests enjoy spontaneous conversation. And his love of language sometimes became obsessive, as he spent hours crafting the ideal phrase for an article or talk.
Hafen also captures the good-natured meekness of a man who recognized his faults, strove mightily to conquer them, and laughed about his imperfections. Hafen notes of his writing: "Stylistically, he has gradually tamed the ornamentation that some of his friends once thought was simply too much." Maxwell himself is more direct about all-too-frequent alliterations: "I'm down to two packs a day."
The book is worth reading for its perspective on the life and career of a man determined to learn hard lessons and use this experience to serve others. There are also instructive accounts of how LDS general authorities seek inspiration and consensus, share responsibilities and burdens, and mentor less experienced colleagues. Readers can decide whether Bruce Hafen's biography matches Neal Maxwell's own standards: "We must be careful . . . not to canonize [our role] models as we have some pioneers and past Church leaders not to dry all the human sweat off them, not to put ceaseless smiles on their faces, when they really struggled and experienced agony."
The author (Hafen) is himself a high Mormon authority so reader's shouldn't expect a lot of criticism. However, Hafen did include what others thought of Maxwell and some of this included criticism of subjects from Elder Maxwell's personal style to his love of alliteration and lots of big words. Overall, this book is not a fulsome litany of praise, but a balanced, serious, and scholarly summary of Maxwell's life.
My major criticism of the book was that it flowed more slowly than I would have liked. The recent biography of Nibley flowed more smoothly and made the reader able to concentrate more on the subject matter than the manner of telling the story. I would also have like to see more about Maxwell's expectations for the future. Hafen documents the insight of Maxwell that was ahead of his time in so many areas.
What does that insight say about future challenges to the Church of Jesus Christ? What about English language and America being less of an influence in the church now that Spanish is the most common language of the Church and most Mormons now live outside the US? What about education in the future now that public schools no longer maintain "an acceptable moral and educational climate"?
However, these minor criticisms do not compare to the strengths of this book in detailing Maxwell's life and thoughts. There is plenty of meat in this book and I made a several page list of Maxwell quotes as I read this book. This book is so superior to books like the biography of J. Reuben Clark by an apostate historian who included lots of little digs at Clark in the name of "fairness" but completely missed the grandeur and depth of the subject.
Overall, the second best Mormon book I've read this year. (Nibley's biography would be first)