Stephen has agreed to comment on his essay “Weight of the Priesthood.” By way of a beginning, he responds here to questions Levi posed. Stephen will be reading the comments and will respond to readers as much as he can.
LEVI: Your essay strikes me as a beautiful mix of gentle irreverence and an ultimate respect for the priesthood. Were you aware of these qualities as you wrote the essay?
STEPHEN: I’m going to take the long way around to answer your question. I started writing this essay just after reading two Mormon-themed personal essays by Eric Goold, a friend of mine here in Fairbanks. His writing was so vibrant, honest and funny that it pretty much knocked me out of my chair.
I have a problem with most Mormon writing out there. It’s all too easy. Either it’s, “Gee, look how great the Church is,” or “Flee, innocents, from the horror that is Mormonism!” Too many writers have an agenda. Their overriding concern is to let you know what the correct answer is. Few people on either side of the argument are willing to encounter Mormonism in all its glory and ignominy.
I finally started realizing why this is so. It’s mainly because it’s so hard to write a second act. You know how second acts go: the hero took on the difficult task in the first act, and now every that can go wrong is going wrong. The second act is always the longest act, because that’s what a story is about, the struggle. Once the struggle is over, the story is over.
What I’ve seen in my reading of official Church publications and the writings of those who have a bone to pick with the Church is that they rarely have a second act in their stories. In The Ensign or The New Era the basic story structure is: something went wrong, but lo, [insert gospel principle here] solved the problem. The end. It’s a one-act plot. Bone-picking stories have a similar one-act structure: I used to believe, but then I found these lies and left the Church. The end. Almost no attention is ever paid to the struggle itself.
To me, the struggle is the most important part of a story. I’ve realized that I enjoy a story or a movie most when it is in the middle of the second act, because that is when there are the most problems, but also the most opportunities. The whole story is wide open; anything could go anywhere. It’s beautiful.
So I suppose you could say that I was aware of a respect for the priesthood while I was writing “The Weight of Priesthood” because I thought it could withstand a second act. And I was right.
LEVI: Women don’t take part in the administrative functions of the priesthood, but often experience its prophetic and power-transferring aspects as a part of faith and prayer. Do you think women will respond to your essay differently than men?
STEPHEN: You know, I would love to know the answer to that question. Women and the priesthood is one of those questions that constantly sticks in my craw. I have no idea what to think about it. I only address that aspect of priesthood briefly in my essay because — embarrassingly — the essay is primarily about me. And I’m male.
One of the reasons I’m excited about this blog is because I want to hear what my thoughts elicit in female readers. I know there is quite a spectrum of stories, and I want to hear them all. That’s what writing is all about to me: I share my story, and in return, you share yours.
LEVI: You say that Mormons have two main story settings: the pioneer trek and the mission field. They are both repositories of the miraculous stories we have all grown up with. Do you think Mormons need a new "story setting" for the priesthood in this century? Would it help you feel less ambivalent about the priesthood?
STEPHEN: That’s a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It seems that there are always stories vying for your attention. They want to interpret your experience for you, and they often want to be the last word on the subject. I spent a good deal of my life thinking that I needed to choose the “right” story to interpret my life by, but recently I’ve been thinking that what really needs to happen is that I need to learn to tell my own story in my own way. Which has proved to be monumentally difficult for the above-mentioned reasons.
It’s kind of like when Richard Dutcher released God’s Army. I attended a lecture he gave where one of the audience members asked, “Did you get approval from the Church for the story in God’s Army?” He told her he didn’t need the Church’s approval. It was his story. Similarly, in a book I read recently called Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett, the main character, a witch in training, doesn’t achieve the status of true witch until she learns to not be controlled by stories anymore, but to create them herself.
I think it takes a certain kind of genius to create a story setting that can act as an archetype for millions of people to interpret their lives through. Joseph Smith had that genius. I don’t. The only possibility I can offer is what I do at the end of “The Weight of Priesthood,” and that is, to clear everything out and find out: what grows wild in you? What stories actually resonate in you? What truly enthralls you? Those were the questions I was finally asking myself when I wrote this essay.
LEVI: In your final paragraphs you speak of laying your two hands upon the heads of your sleeping sons and feeling “completely connected with them–as if I am in the midst of the most intimate gesture that can occur between two people. And it seems, during those moments, that the weight is levied, or shared, or completely buoyed.” I’m not sure what this touching scene implies. Were you being intentionally ambiguous when you wrote it?
STEPHEN: The most difficult thing about writing for me is crafting an ending. I usually spend more time on endings than the whole rest of the piece. I think that’s because I’ve been brought up in a culture that values the propagation of definite principles. Every talk ends with a testimony, every story with a moral. There seems to be this idea that a story has to end up at a single point, and that that single point should present a definite value. So when I wrote, I would often unconsciously try to fulfill this parameter, resulting in one awful ending after another.
I’ve realized that the kind of ending that resonates in me is not when the question is answered, but when the question is satisfyingly reformulated in order to point me in a new direction. So instead of saying, “And thus we see that such and such is the answer to such and such a question,” we are led to see that the question we had been asking is only a shadow of a much more enthralling question. Answers are dead end streets in my opinion. Questions are highways.
Unless, of course, the answer leads to another question.
What I hope that ending does is launch the reader into his or her own thoughts and experiences. I hope it gives them an opening to consider their own story from a fresh perspective. I want to be a companion in storytelling, rather than an authority.
So to answer your first question last, to me that particular scene with my sons is pointing to the idea that, at its core, perhaps priesthood is not about authority, or God’s power, or administration, but about connection. Maybe the priesthood is a metaphor we use to express our desire to connect deeply with other people. In which case, perhaps the priesthood belongs to everyone.