Boyd Jay Petersen's Dead Wood and Rushing Water: Essays on Mormon Faith, Culture, and Family collects a wide range of the author's work from the last fifteen years and includes everything from published essays and book reviews to the eulogies Petersen delivered at his own parents' funerals. Though the mode varies from essay to essay within the book, there is a remarkably consistent purpose throughout all his work. Petersen uses his writing to address and navigate ambiguity--specifically the problem of how to be faithful and believing when the people we love, the physical bodies we rely on, or the religious communities we embrace present trials of faith.
In his introduction, Petersen points out that the word "essay" comes from a French verb that means "to try or attempt," and that the personal essay is a tentative effort at capturing and crystallizing ideas (7). He also draws on the metaphor from the book's title and explains his purpose in writing about his Mormonism: "In the same way dead wood nourished a river, writing has been a way for me to find redemption in defeat, hope in pain. The personal essay, in particular, gives me a way to make my life experiences meaningful. But it also helps me understand myself and what I believe. It's often in writing about a topic that I really come to understand my position" (3). While certainly not every Latter-day Saint will agree with some of the positions Petersen takes, all Mormons would benefit from thinking about their faith, their understanding of doctrine, and their political life as deeply and carefully as Petersen does here.