What Puts the Mormon in Mormon Girl?By: Andrew S
A few days ago, I wrote about Ralph Hancock’s review of Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl at my personal blog. But actually, that post didn’t end up about that at all. It ended up being about how Ralph and several Meridian commenters used Joanna’s words to try to psychoanalyze the entire liberal/uncorrelated Mormon gambit. (Similarly, Kristine Haglund’s rather tame appearance on C-SPAN to discuss Mormonism and Mitt Romney produced similar results in the comments at BCC.)
In much pleasant contrast is Dave Banack’s review of The Book of Mormon Girl at Times and Seasons. I just want to point out a few of his comments and point out how refreshing they are.
First, I’ll start off with something he said that seems to encapsulate for many the experience of growing up Mormon:
The experience of growing up Mormon seems to leave an indelible psychic mark, like a near-death experience or going through boot camp. Whether you later view that mark as a gift or a curse, it’s there nonetheless. So if you grew up Mormon, Brooks’ story of growing up is in some sense your story.
Just after, Dave notes that it is, however, not his story (several commenters note the same)…as he was a teenage convert, and probably had considerably different experiences as a result…this is something I’ve thought about often…it’s clear that different people have different experiences with Mormonism, different reactions to various things related to it…but why?
Sometimes people want to say that the major differentiating factor is whether one has grown up inside Utah or outside Utah. The most intense Mormons (who become the most intense ex-Mormons, if they disaffect) come from Utah. Mormons outside Utah can somehow be more mellow both inside and outside the church.
…a different way of contrasting groups is by pointing out whether one was born and raised in the church or converted later in life. Under this classification schema, those who were born and raised take a distinctly cultural dimension to the church that converts may completely lack as “non-natives” to the church.
I don’t know if either of these are really appropriate or accurate, but I think that Dave has several lines throughout his review that subtly play with these contrasts.
The Book of Formerly Ex-Mormon Girl?
Dave uses language that functionally classifies Joanna as someone who was an ex-Mormon who came back. (Well, I don’t know if it goes that far, but labels a section of the review as leaving the church and coming back. But his description of Joanna’s “leaving the church” seems pretty active to me):
…she went back to California and lived the life of a graduate student while largely avoiding mainstream Mormonism but lingering on the fringes: reading LDS journals, writing a piece here or there, sneaking into the back of LDS meetings now and then.
In the sense, I see that Dave is identifying “the church” with “mainstream Mormonism” — so since Joanna indeed was “largely avoiding mainstream Mormonism” her lingering involvement with LDS journals do not count in her favor.
…I think this is really interesting. What does it mean to leave the Church? (For example, what does it mean to leave the church as opposed to “being inactive,” or “being on hiatus” or even “being a Mormon on one’s own terms”? Do any of these blur into one another?) I haven’t read the book or a lot of Joanna’s own comments about her story, so I don’t know if she would classify that period of her life as having “left the church,” but my gut reaction has never been to classify Joanna as someone who has “left the church and then returned.”
…But then again, on an anecdotal level, I’ve thought about this before: I know people who HAVE testified in church that they were inactive for 20+ years before coming back to activity. When people say this…even if they don’t say they “left the church,” I have to pause: if someone has been inactive for as many years as I have been alive, yet they still have “come back,” then at what point in disaffection can one say that they have left without putting an asterisk for the possibility that they could change their minds later?
But whether Joanna left, just went on extended emotional holiday, or was just inactive, I found the analysis Dave made regarding her reasons for return striking…not for what they were, but for what he felt they weren’t:
Brooks’ writing suggests that she, as a sensitive but alienated Mormon, still had a deep, if hidden, connection to the Church, probably deeper than most active, churchgoing Mormons do. She writes movingly of the women who are her LDS ancestors; she writes of bringing her daughters back to church so they, too, can feel that connection and be part of that ongoing generational story. There is no suggestion that any concern with immediate family caused her to return; it is obviously not LDS doctrine or politics that she missed. “LDS culture” or even “LDS heritage” doesn’t seem to capture what drew her back. Toward the end of the book, she explains, “I went back to church so that my daughters could know the same loving, kind, and powerful God I was raised to believe in.” Or, as she recalls explaining years ago to a friend who was puzzled by the odd persistence of her Mormon-ness, “it is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart.”
One for Our Team?
Is it a bad thing that people don’t stick with the church for the sake of family concerns, LDS doctrine, or politics? Well, here’s exactly where people disagree…For Dave, it’s not ideal, but it’s not a bad thing. As he said:
Well, if that’s how you talk about your sort-of ex-church, you’ll probably head back too at some point. Whatever the reason, I count her return as a small victory. Given the increasing numbers of young Mormons leaving the Church and the amount of bad press we’ve been getting lately, we should all be grateful for such small victories.
However, as my previous link to Ralph Hancock’s review in Meridian suggests, others don’t see things the same. And Dave notes that. Dave has a bit more things to say about people like that:
Yet there are people out there saying there’s no room in the LDS Church for people like Brooks, describing her position favoring gay marriage as “irreconcilable with the church,” and generally trying to make Brooks and others like her feel unwelcome (although still “want[ing] her to remain Mormon”).
There’s a phrase that describes this smaller-is-better view of the ideal church: The Church of Jesus Christ of People Just Like Me. This view seems to flourish inside the Provo bubble, where everyone you meet might actually be just like you, a place where people like Professor Bott (another supporter of the Church of People Just Like Me) can flourish for decades. The people who embrace this sort of thinking and the rash public statements they make if given access to the media are more of a danger to the Church than those who dream progressive dreams, give speeches to a few dozen sympathizers, and write essays and poetry in journals that few Mormons even know exist. In the unjust calculus of public relations, one dumb statement by an LDS official or employee does much more harm than a dozen speeches, essays, or poems by folks like Brooks. I wish the SCMC had a dumb statements file, but I doubt the committee is paying any attention to that danger.
Dave’s encapsulation of this view as “The Church of Jesus Christ of People Just Like Me” reminded me of my post on the Typical Mormonism Fallacy. But the thing about Typical Mormonism Fallacy is that it doesn’t only applies to people like Professor Bott…rather, all kinds of people can be guilty of making their experience of Mormonsim the Only True Experience of Mormonism. Unfortunately, even though diversity and a “big tent” are embraced by some progressive-minded, “uncorrelated” types, the question is whether they are successful in avoiding a “smaller-is-better” view of the ideal church…only shifted further left on the political or theological spectrum.
Dave hits that point too:
Personally, I like to think that political views are opinions on which reasonable people can differ, but that may be a minority view these days. I don’t get the sense that Brooks sees political opinions that differ from hers as potentially reasonable. There are certainly plenty of Mormon conservatives who reciprocate.
I think that we all (especially us at Wheat & Tares) run the risk of trying to create an environment where political (or theological) views are opinions on which reasonable people can differ, but ultimately, we still end up privileging certain opinions over others.
But that’s another topic for another day…I’ve been thinking about a few things since reading Dave’s post, and that brings us to the…
Questions for Today
- What makes a girl (or boy) Mormon?
- Is Joanna Brooks (or *should* she be considered) a Mormon, given her own statements of what draws her to the church, what she believes and what she doesn’t, what she accepts and what she doesn’t?
- What makes someone an ex-Mormon? Does one have to essentially stop talking about Mormonism or engaging with it in any way to be ex-Mormon? How can one tell if one is ex-Mormon vs. Mormon-in-indefinite-hiatus?