Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mormon Stories and Me

I discovered Mormon Stories podcasts a couple of years after they started. I was in love. Something I could listen to while I worked in the lab or around the house, or while I biked or drove places. Discussions of Mormonism that weren't scripted or saccharin or intent on proving one particular viewpoint. Real people's stories about their very real struggles with Mormonism--doctrine, history, and culture. I didn't know the people, except for Bill Bradshaw who was one of the most influential science professors in my development. I'd read a little from a few of the Mormon scholars interviewed, but not most. I was actively trying to figure out what I thought about some of the topics discussed, and here I was being pointed toward thoughtful, faithful sources for exploring my faith further. It was fantastic.

One year Ammie and I heard about a relatively nearby Mormon Stories conference, and we made the trip with our 1yo boy. It was so refreshing. We met John Dehlin, Anne Peffer, and Greg Prince, and we heard lots of moving stories, but what was most fun was the not so prominent people that we just got to talk with during lunch and dinner. We didn't make any fast friends, but we follow a couple on Facebook, and we just felt good about being Mormon. We didn't feel like North Carolina/Utah Mormon culture defined what it means to be Mormon, and we felt at home.

Up to this point, I'm not sure we really understood the depth of faith crises some Mormons were experiencing. I had experienced my sister and her family leaving the LDS church. Mormon Stories had helped me understand her choices much better, and I was grateful for that, but it wasn't the reason I listened. I listened to Mormon Stories because I love Mormonism, and nothing about the several dozen podcasts I had listened to had really changed that relationship. It still hasn't. If my life allowed it, I would be just as active as ever. It's my work and family situation that doesn't allow as intense an activity as I practiced for most of my life, not the changes I've undergone in my thought and knowledge. When those things change again, my activity will change again. I listened to John Dehlin's very public changes as regards the LDS church, and I was kind of amazed at how he said people were responding. He lost listeners when he became more critical of the church. He lost listeners when he became more positive about the church. I thought, I like John's story, but it is only one reason I keep coming back. There are so many stories here. While he's always there, Mormon Stories is good because of how often John just gets out of the way and lets other people have their say. He doesn't limit them to sound bite responses, and lets them even change his questions if they don't like what he asked. Real communication is happening.

I'm sure my delving into Mormon thought has changed me. I've gone from believing that we need to be kind and welcoming to gay Mormons to believing that the only way to really do that is to advocate for them. I've gone from believing that gendered divisions of labor are healthy to believing that division of labor is great, but the gendered aspects of it are hurtful, deeply embedded in our lives, very questionable in their application beyond this life, and should be struggled against in this life (the natural man is an enemy to God, after all). I've gone from believing in the essential infallibility of the Book of Mormon to believing its prophets were real people with all of the baggage that comes with that. I take what they wrote for my own edification and inspiration, but I take its perfect accuracy with a grain of salt. I've gone from being a defender of inspired polygamy to believing that, if some part of it was inspired, it sure got mixed in with a lot of reprehensible junk. I've gone from defending Mormonism and its leaders with all their faults to defending their goodness despite their faults. I've gone from feeling that I need to make everything fit Mormonism (since the gospel encompasses all that is true) to defining Mormonism to include all the truths I find and just throwing out the falsehoods in my church's history, culture, and theology as dead skin from a living church, or a sickness to be endured, blessed, and cared for. I've also delved into stylometry and become even more convinced that the Book of Mormon is a translation (however strange the process) and not Joseph's invention. Yes, I've changed, but it hasn't been a crisis.

I'm telling this story because there are things I wish for others who are encountering the aspects of Mormonism that get lots of airtime online and on podcasts. I hope that as you learn you will feel compelled towards a middle ground. Whether you stay in or leave the LDS church or Mormonism, I hope you won't trade one black and white perspective for a different one. I hope as you see the sins of our prophets you will find goodness in them, too, and your life won't be defined by fighting their errors. I hope as you see the sins of those who leave you will find goodness in them, too, and won't use their errors to ignore the very real flaws in ourselves. I hope you will continue a life of seeking and will neither retrench into a correlated fortress nor trade one false certainty for a new, premature certainty. I hope you will see that it is inevitable for children and young teenagers to live in black and white worlds where rules and roles are clearly defined and narratives are believed as truths (whether an LDS narrative or another). I hope you will help make space for those who are leaving that world of black and white, and sustain them in their unpracticed steps into color.

Maybe I hope for these things because I want company. Maybe they are just how I see myself, and not really accurate at all. Maybe I'm just as judgmental and hypocritical as ever, and maybe I haven't really grown in understanding. Maybe I'm not committed to truth and goodness, and I just don't want to live by someone else's rules--even God's. I know we are terrible judges of ourselves lots of times, but I feel like I'm improving. And I think Mormon Stories deserves some credit for it. It's not about John, but I do want to say:

Thank you, John.
Your brother, Jonathan

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