The Distance: A Review of Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam Miller

We do not live the life we think we do. We think that we are the star of our own show or, sometimes, the villain. We think that what we do matters, because we are doing it; our acts are windows into the soul or the building blocks of our character. We assume, though we claim to be disciples, though we claim to be saints, that we are the most important actors in our salvation play. I’m not certain that we are entirely wrong, but we are definitely not entirely right.

One of my criteria for scripture is that it reminds us of this truth: there is a distance between the life we actually live and the life that we narrate. This gap, according to Adam Miller’s recently released Letters to a Young Mormon, is the central problem of Christian life. Miller’s book is an eloquent argument, framed as a series of letters written to S., a young Mormon, for the proposition that what we do or say matters less than who we are, that self-discovery is the discipline to which the Lord would bind us, and that this discipline is what overcomes the distance.

To illustrate the distance, Miller returns, again and again, to the stories we tell ourselves. Stories about scripture, history, science, agency, and sin; stories that comfort us, swallow us, and impede our progress. We tell stories to justify our sins, to conceal our errors, to promote our victories, and to delineate our company. Stories are no universal evil (Miller freely dips into history, memory, and scripture, all story, to support his arguments), but they are not life. Life is stranger, more chaotic, and much, much less interested in what you think about the whole process.

The process will continue ever onward, with or without you. You may be stardust, but there’s an awful lot of it lying around. We may re-enact scenes from the Savior’s life in speech and ritual, but we are no saviors; we’re just people. People are flawed, hungry, horny, easily distracted, easily bored. We’ll be children until we die; if the prophets are to be believed, we may some time later become adolescent. Our stories, with the narrative necessity of a beginning and an end, betray us. We lose ourselves in the temporal because we feel the end coming, and worry that we must begin before it is too late (tomorrow should do it).

But what should we begin to do? Miller suggests that we pursue our ambitions, that we explore our surroundings, that we ask probing questions and seek provisional answers. He feels that we should acquaint ourselves with our bodies, the source of our life, with the hungers and desires that motivate our flesh. Not to deny ourselves, but to better understand ourselves. Miller approves of exploring what can be learned from science and history, implying that stories that don’t bear scrutiny may well be false or, at least, apt for revision. But most of all, Miller suggests that getting out of one’s own head is a necessary step. Alone and contemplative, we only have stories. It is in living that we can measure the distance between the tales we tell ourselves and the life we actually lead. It is in living that we find God at work in and with us.

For all his suspicion of story, Miller is as prone to narrative’s vices as anyone. These letters are written by a man and betray the male notion of what makes life important. Thus, the letter on sex has little to say about women. Not that Miller’s advice is only applicable to men, but rather the chapter demonstrates what for Miller is a blind spot. There is no work being done with gender in this book. This may speak to Miller’s interests or it may due to some self-perceived inadequacy to the task, but most likely Miller may have simply felt that there is already a sufficient number of men telling women what they ought to think of themselves. Nevertheless, the absence of a discussion on the subject is glaring.

All in all, Miller assumes justifiably that there is a gap between what the reader thinks they do, what the reader does, and why the reader either thinks or does these things. This chasm, for a Christian, is not to be bridged. The story that we tell is not our own; it is the Lord’s. We are the disciples; we don’t determine the discipline. The distance between the story and our life, Miller argues, will not be traversed, but rather both story and life will be lost when we give ourselves up unto Christ, in whom all things are one.

Miller’s work here, to my mind, constitutes scripture. It points us to God, reminds us of the goodness of Christ, and inspires us to feed his lambs. There is little more we could ask of any Christian act.

Comments

  1. I was kind of on the fence about picking this one up, but your review has definitely placed it in my “to buy” pile. Thanks, JDC.

  2. Thanks for the review, John. Question about the letter on sex. When I read it I was also thinking about the gender dynamic. This letter (like the other ones, no question) represents a limited and time-bound perspective. I wonder if the blind spot with regard to women is more the result of omitting particularly gender-prescribed reflections. The chapter talks about sexual drives, and I think many women and men can at least relate to the chapter on that level, however it plays out in specific cases, no? We tend to incorrectly think of women as having no sex drive when in fact there are biological urges women feel nevertheless, no? It would be great if more women could chime in on this particular letter.

  3. Angela C says:

    The letter on sex is definitely written from one man to another, younger man (or as I imagined it, a younger version of the author). I tend to agree that it didn’t really resonate for me, but several of the earlier chapters were so well written I didn’t mind.

  4. Angela: My understanding of the letter is that it addresses the issue of sexual desire, something that really emerges around the time of puberty for guys, but what about for women? Keep in mind the letter was written for S., who I actually believe is a young woman herself. Are you saying he’s off-base in his assumption that a desire for sex is part of a young woman’s experience of having a physical body? I think, when it comes to sex, the temptations facing young men and young women will differ, especially considering the differing social pressures, emotions, and biological urges which differ person to person, of course. But try to think of the letter as a non-comprehensive approach to one particular problem of sexual desire for men or women: the fact that it emerges before we actually get married. Is that not a circumstance many women face?

  5. Blair,
    I think that this is an area where Miller’s attempts to universalize fail his narrative. Sexual desire, for social reasons if not biological, seems to be gendered in America. Certainly women experience sexual desire, but the manner in which they process it often strikes me as very different from the way men do. To some degree, the notion that we can generalize out something as personal as sexual desire is a very male approach (one that I’ve engaged in myself, unfortunately). For example, It explains in part the recent LDS poll regarding homosexuality, in which the options for self-description were “heterosexual” and “heterosexual, struggling with same-sex attraction.” Of course, the tendency to universalize personal experience isn’t something only males do, but when we do it in relation to the sexes (and sex) it is a bit more noticeable.

    As Angela said, the rest of the book more than makes us for Miller’s struggling attempts to discuss sex. He’s earned sufficient good will by then (I think), that he isn’t offensive (actually, there is nothing in the chapter to be offended by, aside from a light dusting of the male privilege we’ve already discussed). Miller is, in every way, a fine example of a good, Mormon man.

  6. At various parts of the book where my perspective differs from Adam’s I’ve kept in mind his description of the letters as attempts to “say my own piece” about aspects of Mormonism. What’s nice about this is that no one needs to feel either “orthodox” or “unorthodox” when reading, agreeing with, or arguing against any particular part of the book. I don’t want to seem overly defensive, especially as I’m associated with Adam’s publisher, but I really am interested in talking about this particular aspect of the book since I wondered about it as I first read it.

    Sexual desire, for social reasons if not biological, seems to be gendered in America. Certainly women experience sexual desire, but the manner in which they process it often strikes me as very different from the way men do. To some degree, the notion that we can generalize out something as personal as sexual desire is a very male approach

    Right, I’m with you here, but I’m still not convinced that there are no women who will find something useful in Miller’s discussion about sex. I don’t think LYM’s parts about sex should be universalized, but I’m still not convinced that what he says there (in probably my least favorite section of the book) is necessarily of no use to young women, either. I wonder if you or others (preferably women, yes?) can expand on your words: “but the manner in which they process it often strikes me as very different from the way men do.”

  7. Kristine says:

    “but the manner in which they process it often strikes me as very different from the way men do.”

    Very few people have been both a man and a woman and offered a comparison of how their sexual desires were shaped by biology and gender, so it seems to me that when we talk about how women experience desire differently than men, we’re all just blowing smoke. Moreover, I think *especially* among Mormons, the differences are so grotesquely exaggerated by our discourse that we may need to overcorrect by paying much more attention to the similarities between male and female desire. I kind of like the fact that Adam writes about sexual desire in a way that’s not overtly gendered. Female readers will know that the author is male, and are capable of recalibrating his assertions to fit their own experience–we’ve gotten good at that over centuries of reading about “Mankind.”

  8. “it seems to me that when we talk about how women experience desire differently than men, we’re all just blowing smoke”

    must…not… make… snarky…comment….

  9. Angela C says:

    Young women entering puberty do experience desire, definitely, but it seemed to me that writing about it as a universal experience is part of why it didn’t sound like anything I as a young woman would have recognized. I would think most young female sexual feelings are tied up in a specific attraction, tied up in a fantasy related to a specific person, not a general feeling of sexual desire at large. In my experience, that comes later, with sexual activity. Having said that, I’m also sure it varies from woman to woman, but given that masturbation habits differ (a huge generalization, I realize) between men and women, and from person to person, I think it’s related to that. I’d have to go back to re-read the chapter to be more specific about why I assumed he was talking about a male experience.

  10. I appear to be communicating poorly. I’m not saying that Miller’s thoughts on sex will be uninteresting or completely foreign to women. Rather I’m saying that how we talk about physical intimacy is so intertwined with how we talk about gender, that I was surprised that he tried to separate the one from the other in his discussion. There are good reasons to do it, as I said in the review (I hope), but to do it with no explanation makes it come off as a blind spot, rather than a deliberate choice.

    I am also not arguing that sexual desire isn’t universal; instead I’m saying that the social aspects of gender and religion result in boys and girls, men and women experiencing it differently. I’m assuming that this is a psychological, rather than a physiological, issue (I’ve no idea if there are physiological differences beyond the ones obvious to the naked eye). Kristine may be right that we tilt too far in allowing these cultural differences to influence our understanding; I’m certainly no expert. There is always the possibility of people finding what they want to, rather than understanding what is really happening.

  11. Angela: I would think most young female sexual feelings are tied up in a specific attraction, tied up in a fantasy related to a specific person, not a general feeling of sexual desire at large. In my experience, that comes later, with sexual activity.

    I think Adam’s specific advice in that chapter then may well be more appropriate for young single adults in the Church more than adolescents. But the book also delves into the problem of love in general, and how we seek acceptance, tell stories about ourselves and others in ways that potentially occlude love. In that regard, is he also speaking to that aspect of a young woman’s experience in chapters other than “Sex”?

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