This is the third book I’ve read this year because I heard my stake president mention it favorably. However, when I just pulled out my notes from a meeting earlier this year to compare what I got out of it with what he’d taught us from it, I found that he’d actually recommended Russel M. Nelson’s biography. Whoops.
That’s OK. I enjoyed getting to know more about Elder Maxwell; in fact, over the summer I read a great line of his–“There is no democracy of facts”–which perfectly encapsulates my own philosophy, and which I’ve since used in my email signature.
But, unfortunately, A Disciple’s Life is only a mediocre biography of a truly great man. Elder Maxwell deserved better.
Bruce C. Hafen of the First Quorum of Seventy wrote this book, at Elder Maxwell’s invitation. Though he explains in a preface that he wanted to focus on the theme of discipleship in Neal Maxwell’s life, the result very unevenly pursues that goal. The first third and last third of the book–which focus on his family and early life, and then on his ministry as a General Authority–are excellent reading; they’re inspiring, lucid, motivational, and informative about everything from modern church history to coping with demanding callings, but the middle third of the book is a dull clunker with very little value.
(Great story from the beginning sections: during his mission in Canada, Elder Maxwell had to serve in a branch leadership position. Subsequently, he baptized two people on his mission…and excommunicated four. Afterwards, he always felt bad that his mission cost the Church a net loss of two people.)
The central chapters in A Disciple’s Life focus on Elder Maxwell’s service in education and his role in the “correlation” era of the church’s organization. While both subjects are worthwhile, Hafen gives them far too much space, crowding out the precious personal anecdotes that make any biography truly passionate, leaving us with a lengthy resumé that has the marked lack of vivacity that one would expect from an average Wikipedia entry. The inordinate detail given to these aspects of Maxwell’s life could leave one with the impression that his greatest achievements in life concerned him being an inspired pencil pusher.
Aside from that miscalculation of distributing Maxwell’s life across pages, Hafen has other writing flaws that mar this work. The book has no footnotes, and many of his quotes aren’t even introduced with references to sources, so the reader is left confused as to who is saying what or from where the author got the material, unless one happens upon the endnotes.
Hafen’s editing is a micromanagement nightmare. He frequently peppers quotes with superfluous, lengthy bracketed explanations, which could have been explained outside the quote, or left out altogether. One especially egregious example is when he writes something to the effect of “those were the last words [while he was still living] that Maxwell heard him say.” Really? Without that editorial crutch, I would have wondered if the man in question had spoken to Maxwell before or after he died.
Hafen’s occasionally amateurish work aside, A Disciple’s Lifeis still worthwhile if only because of its subject. Neal A. Maxwell’s humble origins remind us that in God’s eyes we are all truly equal, and his service as a General Authority inspires us to grow into better disciples ourselves. I was deeply touched by Elder Maxwell’s desire to spiritually better himself throughout his life, and that his improvement didn’t stop upon his call to be an Apostle: he truly saw his affliction with leukemia as a blessing. There’s a lot of power in his life.
In fact, having now finished his biography, I’ve decided to study every recorded talk he’s ever given for the Church. To that end, I’ve bookmarked this fantastic page, which gives a chronological list of all of Elder Maxwell’s talks, and links to each of them where possible. I’m excited about getting to really delve into the legacy of a true disciple whose mind and heart worked so well together in the service of our Lord.