Church Exchange, Part 1

Last Sunday my friend Brad and I visited the El Camino YSA Sacrament Meeting–in other words, Mormon church.  Highlights included:
*Listening to a talk on kindness in which the prime example of the virtue was a lady who “used to sell Bibles” inviting the speaker, a former door-to-door saleswoman, into her house for a glass of water on a hot, discouraging day.  Yes–score one for the Christians!  ; )
*Earning a spot in the “Gospel Doctrine” Sunday school class.  Normally first-time visitors (and new converts) get sent to “Gospel Principles,” a more basic class.  Alex–our friend from Institute–confirmed that we knew enough to handle the big-time lesson.  Legit.
*In said class the lesson was on false doctrine, taking material from 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.  One of the passages we looked at talks about silencing false teachers.  I briefly considered following this mandate by standing up and denouncing the teacher as a heretic, but decided that’s probably not what Paul had in mind.  Or maybe it was.  Oops.

On a more serious note…

On the drive home I mused aloud that I had found the service “surprisingly Christian.”  “Really?” Brad replied.  “It seemed pretty Mormon to me.”  [This isn’t the time to get into whether those two categories are mutually exclusive.]  I started to explain what specific aspects of the service gave me this impression, but I came up with some pretty lame and shallow examples.  I kept thinking about my observation the rest of the day and eventually realized that the Mormon church service hadn’t been surprisingly Christian; it had been surprisingly “normal.”

Here’s the thing about my job: I have a lot of free time.  So I spend a fair amount of time browsing the ‘net.  A couple weeks ago I discovered–and spent hours reading–exmormon.org, which offers itself as a resource for people who have left the LDS church.  A large part of the website is devoted to a discussion board, organized topically, on which former members can vent their frustrations and seek solidarity with their fellow unbelievers.  Of course, I’ve never been Mormon, but it was fascinating to read people’s stories of their experiences within the Mormon faith.

Not surprisingly, however, the overwhelming majority of these posts treat the LDS church with bitterness and contempt.  Apparently it’s pretty typical for ex-Mormons to leave the church disillusioned and angry, partly with the church for having “deceived” them, and partly with themselves for having been deceived.   The exmormon.org discussion board is full of exaggerated rants and personal attacks on Mormon leaders and lay members, some of which seem justified, and some of which really don’t.  I sympathize with the single woman in her thirties who was mercilessly pressured into marriage, but I just get irritated by the guy who delivers a drawn-out complaint about being “called” to serve in his local ward.  Yes, because church should be a completely passive activity to which we don’t contribute at all (I hope you can hear the sarcasm, here).  And then there are the conspiracy theorists, nervously anticipating the establishment of a Mormon theocracy (don’t vote for Mitt!).

But even though I think a lot of the posts are unfair, I have found myself all too eager to “side” with their authors against the LDS church.  Mormon-Christian relations, especially as regards theology, are often ambiguous, and sometimes it’s just easier to draw lines and condemn instead of remaining in that tension-filled middle space where our similarities overlap.  I’m all for maintaining distinctives (hopefully I’ll write more on this soon, because I’m often frustrated by my Mormon friends’ hesitancy to acknowledge them), but saying, “Amen!” to gratuitous attacks on this faith community probably isn’t the best way to do that, even if it does feel safer than defending a belief system I think is at least partly wrong. 

All that to say, since I had never before been to a Mormon church service, my expectations were colored by what I read at exmormon.org.  I expected to hear talks on marriage and gender roles and hymns like “Praise to the Man” (about JS, not JC) and “Oh My Father” (in which Heavenly Mother is also addressed).  I half expected to meet judgmental housewives and other congregants who would really rather not be there.

But instead what I got were fairly Pelagian teachings supported by large amounts of prooftexting: definitely not what I think the Church should be doing, but not “weird” in the sense that the ExMormons had prepared me to expect.  You can find this kind of teaching at many liberal Protestant churches (or even–gasp!–Evangelical ones).  And the congregation was mostly made up of people I recognized (and like) from Institute, and they seemed pretty happy to be at church (or at least happy that their non-member friends were there!).

I think it’s clear that I need to alter how I think of “weirdness.”  Mormonism increasingly looks more like mainstream America: hard-working, friendly, busy, patriotic, optimistic.  Anyone following the church’s recent PR campaign knows they are really into promoting that all-American image.

And why do I instinctively think of Christianity as “not-weird”?  Many of the angry posters on exmormon.org weren’t just ex-Mormon, but ex-religious, or even ex-theist.  Today I came across a posting titled “Mainstream Christianity and their [sic] strange beliefs,” part of an ongoing battle on the board over whether traditional Christianity is just as bad as the “cultic” Mormon church.  The author listed everything he finds “weird” about Christianity, including: “[Christians believe] that Christ is God incarnate, that he died and was resurrected, and that this action was necessary for the salvation of all humans.”

Yup, we do.  A few weekends ago at church I was talking with one of my pastors about my interfaith dialogue experiences, and he recalled one of his kids talking about how “weird” Hinduism was.  “You think that’s weird?” Jon replied.  “We believe in the Trinity, and the incarnation, and the resurrection.  Christianity is much weirder.”  And I think that’s how it should be.  “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Lessons from the day:
#1: Don’t judge a religion based on rants from disgruntled former members (I sure wouldn’t want my faith represented by, say, an ex-Fundamentalist atheist).
#2: Don’t pretend Christianity’s normal.  I don’t believe America is God’s country, or that evolution is a scientific conspiracy theory, or that the righteous will soon be raptured while the earth burns.  I don’t fall into the common stereotype of the weird Christian, but I believe something far stranger: the story of God’s redemptive mission as told in and through His people and Himself.

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A Confession

For the past month or so I’ve been hosting weekly Mormon-Evangelical conversations at my house.  It started when Elder Smith and Elder Harris (these are pseudonymns)–the missionaries in my Institute class–asked if I would like to receive “more in-depth lessons.”  Well-versed in Mormonism as I am, I knew this meant they wanted to have the standard missionary discussions with me.  I’d never actually done this before, so I decided it would be a good learning experience.  Plus, I’d been frustrated that, after attending Institute for several months, I had had very few conversations about the class material.  Apparently an hour and a half of class is enough religious talk for most people, and the post-class snacks are an enticing diversion, but I missed the kind of real conversation I’d gotten to have during my Utah trip this spring.

So I excitedly prepared for my first missionary “lesson.”  I warned the missionaries that I wasn’t at all interested in converting, but that I’d love to hear what they had to say.  I studied up in my I ❤ Mormons book about the best ways to welcome missionaries.  I added both lemonade (in case it was hot) and hot chocolate (in case it was cold) to my grocery list, determined to be hospitable without violating the Word of Wisdom

Then came the first discussion–if you could call it that.  Elders Smith & Harris arrived with Alex, another Insitute classmate (and required chaperone, since I was a woman at home alone).  After a healthy amount of small talk all three guys sat down in a row on one of our couches.  I, realizing that our living room layout is not the most conducive to comfortable dialogue, sat alone on the couch across the room.  They launched into their lesson, asking me about my religious background and why I don’t believe the Book of Mormon is inspired scripture.  Throughout the lesson I felt very uneasy.  I sensed that the missionaries considered themselves in a place of spiritual authority over me; their patronizing remarks about how I was on the right spiritual “track” were irritating, and I wondered if my gender had anything to do with their tone.  Even if I were to convert to Mormonism, I wouldn’t be able to hold the “priesthood” (think “of all believers,” except for women).  Overall, I was disappointed that the thoughtful discussion I had anticipated turned out to be little more than an opportunity to proselytize me.  They didn’t even accept my considerate drink offer!

So the next week I invited my friends Julia and Brad to join us.  The conversation was much more satisfying: I didn’t have to be so defensive because I had others on my “team,” and we actually got to talk about real theological issues.  I was greatly encouraged, and wrote this (awesome) essay about how participating with the Church in these conversations makes me a better “missionary” in my own right.

This Sunday Brad and I are doing a church exchange with the Mormon guys.  At 11 AM we’ll all meet at the El Camino Young Single Adults Ward chapel in Goleta, and then at 5 PM we’ll attend Santa Barbara Community Church.  I’ve been looking forward to this ever since we planned it two weeks ago.  Last night at my weekly prayer home group (made up of a bunch of us recent Westmont grads who can’t figure out our lives), after Brad invited everyone to attend SBCC with us this weekend, some of our friends expressed interest in coming to the LDS church, too.

You’d think, for all my glowing advocacy for participation in the Church as missional, that I’d welcome these new participants.  They’re good friends, and I should be excited that they want to enter in with me to this particular and unusual ministry, right?

Wrong.  I went home grumpy and irritated.

I do have good reasons for being uncomfortable leading a huge group of Evangelicals who are otherwise unfamiliar with Mormonism to an LDS Sacrament Meeting.  I know, because I interrupted my dear roommate’s practice GRE (sorry, Danielle) to make sure.  “Showing up en masse would be weird, right?  Like we just want to watch how the weird Mormons do their weird church services?” (I’m not very articulate when I’m angsty.)  I’ve been attending Institute for five months now, and Brad tagged along for many of those months, so we have context within the ward, relationships (however stunted) with its members.  Danielle agreed, even after I disclosed the following not-so-noble motivations, so I’m gonna push for keeping the group just me, Brad, and the Mormons this Sunday morning.

But then there’s this big part of me that wants to be exclusive for the sake of exclusivity.  I’m petulant because this “Mormon thing” has been my thing.  Especially during a season when I feel like very little about me stands out, like I have little to contribute to the world outside the confines of a classroom, I’m threatened by those members of my Christian community who are more gregarious, better able to connect quickly with strangers.  What if my friends start developing their own relationships with my Institute classmates?  I should probably rejoice that they’d be able to do so, but instead I just worry about my fears that I’ll, once again, be pushed to the sidelines.  I won’t be needed to mediate the two communities.  I might not–heaven forbid–even keep my status as the resident expert on Mormonism.

I think my emotions are at least partially justified.  Right now I’m reaching for anything that will make me seem “special.”  As much as I hate to fall into the stereotype of the insecure woman, that’s kind of what I am right now.  It has been a really rough six months, and finding my place within this particular group of people that make up my home group has been especially tricky.

But I hope that I can move beyond these issues to be able to welcome all willing partners in this “ministry.”  I pray that God will make me confident enough in my own sense of personhood that I can extend a kind of hospitality to those who so lovingly want to support me, or even those who are just curious about the weird Mormons (although, obviously, I’ll always have to be careful about how to do that!).

Ultimately, it’s not about me.


Why I’m Writing about Mormons

Somehow after spending a week desperately trying to finish (and, let’s be honest, start) the last four, ten-page papers of my college career I wasn’t in any rush to start writing again.  But I do like to write, and I do need the practice, so I’ve decided to start blogging about the one thing about which it’s really hard to get me to shut up: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I know this is a weird fascination for a mostly-Evangelical Christian to have.  I use my large amounts of free time at work to peruse General Conference talks or websites that advertise modest wedding dresses (Facebook has caught on–I’m now being hounded by ads for Mormon dating sites).  I devote one night a week to attending class at the Santa Barbara LDS Institute of Religion, and lately some friends and I have been meeting weekly with a couple of missionaries and another friend from Institute.  I even spent my last spring break traveling to Utah with four other Westmont students to engage in interfaith dialogue with Mormon students.

No, I assure concerned friends and family, I’m not interested in converting.  The LDS church did look pretty attractive to me in high school, and sometimes even now my conservative, domestic-sphere-idealizing, really-wants-a-man-now tendencies (perhaps Paul would call them my “old self”) draw me to the homey, all-American image the church tries to cultivate.  I genuinely appreciate the level of commitment required by the LDS church in a time when too many Christians approach the Church as passive consumers.  And I genuinely like Mormons!

But–no offense intended to my Mormon friends–there are approximately one million things that would prevent me from ever getting re-baptized.  The short list:

  • inadequate and simplistic theology (especially as regards Christ, Trinity, Church, and, my favorite thing of all time [literally]: eschaton)
  • feelings-based epistemology (had enough of that in youth group)
  • the idolization of the family, and limited roles for women and singles (LDS Elder Boyd K. Packer once delivered this talk, naming feminism [and, for that matter, intellectualism] among the three big areas into which Mormons “are being caught up and led away.”)
  • a picture of a god who is far too limited to worship

I’m sure I could devote multiple blog posts to any of these reasons, so I’ll save more detailed explanations for later.  Suffice it (for now) to say that I really respect most Mormons, but I have very strong reasons for not being a Mormon (and, positively, for being the kind of Christian I am!).  Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, talks about speaking with “convicted civility,” and that’s the phrase I hope characterizes my interactions with the LDS church.

I’m still not sure why I’m so compelled to seek out Mormons, but I really, really am.  And I want to share what I’m excitedly discovering, what makes me angry, and what little moments of (pseudo-?)Christianity shine through and complicate the distinction between Mormon and Christian.  I want to share my experiences as a religious minority, along with my experiences of welcoming a religious minority into the Church.

These past few months have been a time of disappointment, heartbreak, and ambiguity for me, and somehow these confusing, complicated moments with the Mormons are helping to keep me sane.  I might freak out when I try to plan my own murky future, but I relish the challenge of navigating the nuances of Mormon theology and their implications for Mormon-Christian relations.  I might have a menial job that has nothing to do with my interests or skills, but I’ve taken the initiative to attend Institute and arrange missionary conversations with my friends.  I’m doing something that moves me forward, that gives me hope that there will be more to my life than sitting behind a reception desk and wishing I were still in college.

Welcome to my blog!


Since I’m ditching Institute tonight…

…(for good reason–I’m helping out with 56 Club at church), I thought I’d post one of the essays I wrote for my Duke Divinity School application.  I might have picked a topic that was too ambitious (how participating in the Church enables me to better participate in the Mormon community), but it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.  Here’s the essay, tragically abbreviated (Really, Duke?  One page double spaced is enough to adequately “reflect on a theological issue or book that has recently engaged [my] attention”?) but hopefully good enough to get me into grad school:

For the past four months I have been attending classes at the Santa Barbara Institute of Religion, part of the educational system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The conversations I have at Institute are theologically challenging, requiring a degree of nuanced discernment that both excites and terrifies me. Mormons claim to worship Christ, but is the “Christ” they worship really the risen Son of God? Does the theological trajectory of contemporary Mormonism point to the possibility of an institutional return to orthodoxy? These questions continue to fuel my intellectual curiosity.

But it’s impossible to reduce my interactions at Institute to academic voyeurism. Practicing life as a religious minority has certainly been a valuable experience, but it has also caused me to adopt a posture of defensiveness among my classmates. The LDS church tends to sentimentalize its own history and highlight the Christian Church’s flaws as evidence of our apostacy, and I struggle to both faithfully represent orthodox Christianity and sensitively contextualize the Gospel amid these constant criticisms.

Ironically, though, I’ve found that identifying with and participating in the Church—even embracing the less-than-flattering aspects of our history as my own—enables me to better engage with this other faith community as both a participating insider and a prophetic outsider. Recently two of my Christian friends—a small extension of the Church—have joined me in regular conversation with three Mormon classmates. Knowing I’m not the only one responsible for defending Christian orthodoxy has given me greater freedom to explore the similarities between Mormonism and traditional Christianity, rather than just guarding our distinctives.

And our distinctives emerge more powerfully when my Christian friends and I act as the body of Christ. The ways in which we debate amongst ourselves proclaims the value of honest truth-seeking to a community of faith that tends to value simple answers and conformist thinking. Our messy love for one another proclaims the authentic presence of the Spirit to a people who can reduce the Spirit to faith-promoting emotions. And, perhaps, our willingness to identify with the historic Christian Church, with all its defects and failings, proclaims Christ’s own willingness to remain faithful to His often-faithless Bride.