Book Review: “How Do I Know If I Know?” by John Byetheway.

Title: How Do I Know If I Know?How Do I Know_f
Author: John Bytheway
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Devotional
Year: 2014
Binding: Softcover
Number of pages: 138
ISBN: 9781609079215
Cost: $9.99

Reviewed by Ivan Wolfe for the Association for Mormon Letters

John Bytheway has made a fairly nice niche for himself writing books aimed at Mormon youth that do quite a few things well: He doesn’t talk down to them, he avoids overly complicated language, and he presents the ideas straightforwardly.

I could see a complaint that his writing is too simplistic in handling controversial aspects of the gospel (his work is not at all like Adam Miller’s recent “Letters to a Young Mormon” which does tackle hard issues). However, such a criticism would be missing the point. Bytheway aims his work at as wide a cross-section of Mormon youth as possible, and so his aim really is for the “milk” level rather than the “meat” level (to use a common gospel analogy) – and that’s fine. A lot of youth will find value in his work – he basically provides a strong baseline/foundation for them to grow from. Readers can move on from his work to more complicated issues; in fact, that idea is heavily implied in this most recent work.

In “How Do I Know If I Know” Bytheway tackles the somewhat complicated issue of testimony and whether it’s appropriate to ever say “I know” rather than “I believe.” He tackles issues of doubt, which he treats as necessary and part of the continuum of belief (rather than as something to avoid).

The book starts out with an anecdote about Heber J. Grant during a time before he was prophet (or even a general authority). When expressing some doubt about the strength of his testimony, he was told that his problem was he didn’t know that he knew. Bytheway uses that to argue that most youth “know” more than they may think they know. He creates a continuum that goes from “I don’t believe” to “I doubt” and passing a few more intermediate steps to end on “I believe” and then “I know.”

The main chapters focus on different ways for youth to figure out where you are on the scale (and he makes it clear it’s okay if you’re on the lower end – while he clearly wants readers to move up to the higher end, he’s more interested in helping youth figure out where they really are on the scale, rather than where they might think they are). The different “wires” (his overall analogy has to do with the brightness of a light and the electrical system it’s connected to) are “Feelings” (what kinds of feelings do you experience at church, etc.?), “Experiences” (what happens to you as you live the Gospel?), “Evidences” (this chapter summarizes a lot of apologetic research), and “Logic” (by which he really means “your own powers of reason” instead of formal logic – he talks a lot about “what makes sense”).

One interesting aspect of the book is the constant appearance of Q codes (codes for smartphones to link to online content) that link to various LDS videos and other content online (for the smartphone deficient, the full web addresses are also included in the text). This is a nice nod to the technological world the target audience lives in. It’s still a physical book, but an e-book version also exists (I checked on this).

I imagine most often, this book will be given as a gift by parents or leaders to youth who might struggle with their testimonies. Since this book lets them know the struggling is okay and gives practical tools for figuring out how to make it through the struggle, I imagine Bytheway’s most recent book will have a positive impact. It probably won’t help or please anyone already out or almost out of the church, but for those youth who at least desire to know if they know (or believe) anything at all, this could help them out.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: “How Do I Know If I Know?” by John Byetheway.

  1. For those who want more meat, I recommend the book ‘Think Independently’ by Chauncey Riddle, a retired professor of philosophy who taught at BYU for forty years. It explores epistemogy using a Gospel centered point of view. The book is available through, although unfortunately not yet as an e-book.

  2. I would even recommend “The Crucible of Doubt” by the Givens as more meaty. However, I think many of us “intellectual” types (I have a PhD, after all) tend to think everyone should be eating the meat, whereas when I look at my kids and stepkids, not all of them could really process something as heady (even if accessible) as the Givens work. Bytheway really would be more their speed (to mix way too many metaphors).

  3. Not a big fan of John Bytheway though my parents are and as a consequence my children always receive his media as gifts– all the time. In general, I find characterizing any of his past work as “milk” a bit of an over-statement (“Twinkies” or “Oreos” might be a better characterization). Is this book (which I can anticipate my children receiving for Christmas) a bit more substantive than is past work?

  4. If you didn’t like his past work, I doubt you would like this much.

    To call it “Twinkies” or “Oreos”, I think, is a very uncharitable and disingenuous description (though it’s a common one in LDS intellectual circles for any simple faith promoting work). That implies, rather heavily, that the work in question is not just light fluff, but actively harmful. Bytheway’s work is simple, but it isn’t bad for you.

  5. Ivan, I don’t think Twinkies are harmful, talk about disingenuous descriptions. I see them as empty calories disguised as food, as opposed to milk, which is real food that is easily digested. I wonder if that’s how Elder Holland, the creator of that usage, sees its use as well? And I think calling Bytheway’s offerings Twinkies is charitable given what I called one of his CDs after we listened to it on a long trip.

  6. No, Twinkies really are pretty much bad for you; not just empty calories, but fat-inducing, insulin spiking, cancer fertilizing empty calories of the worst sort.

    However, I don’t think Elder Holland was thinking of Bytheway when he coined the term; empty calories are bad for you because they give the appearance of sustenance while really giving you nothing worthwhile in return.

    Bytheway isn’t your thing – I’m fine with that. Calling him twinkies, and then trying to use an apostle to justify that designation, that’s somewhat disingenuous. It’s one thing not to like a particular style; it’s another to go around casting aspersions as though your preferences somehow trump other people’s.

    Also, charity is not relative.

  7. I should say that I personally find Byetheway too simplistic for me. But as I said above, he seems to work really well for some youth.

    It’s like Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books; I read lots of those as a kid. They’re hardly great literature, and I have no desire to re-read them. But for my level, at that age, they were find and they eventually led to me getting a PhD in literature just because they got me interested in reading a lot. I see Bytheway as similar – he’s not all that deep, but he doesn’t need to be. He is not, however, spiritually empty.

  8. I suspect the folks who are saying Brother Bytheway is like some sugary morsel are reacting in part to a difference in cultural preferences.

    I know people who adore the Church who can’t abide Utah culture, for example.

  9. Yes, BTW will be Twinkies for some adults. But people who think the books are aimed at adults have been eating way too many Twinkies. The key is to keep your audience (younger people) interested while not talking down to them. BTW usually does this, so I appreciate him.

  10. I think Ivan is tired of the smarter-than-thou Mormon pseudo intellectuals who march around dumping on any popular Mormon writer, and I think he has a point. Now, having said that, BTW is a public figure and has opened himself up for criticism by becoming a public figure. It is OK not to like his stuff and to criticize it.

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