Recently I read When Mormons Doubt, a new book by Jon Ogden. The book is a mix of philosophy on reverence and practical ideas for scenarios that Mormons increasingly find themselves in: What do you do when belief is no longer concrete, either for you, or for someone close to you? How do you move forward meaningfully in familial relationships that seem to be taking different paths? Jon writes optimistically about the possibility for both peace and reconciliation both for the people who step out of the church and for those who stay in. The book is a worthy read. Jon pulls the reader gently through a series of thought experiments that nudge in a direction of deeper thought, reverence and respect for the countless spiritual paths that personal Mormonism can offer if we allow it, even once a person has “left” the church.
I’ve written at least three separate pieces working through my ideas after reading When Mormons Doubt and while the book itself got me thinking, it is also the idea of the book that is interesting to me. I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of the history of Mormon literature, but I am an avid reader of non-fiction. The literary landscape available to me as a young BYU student was not encouraging of the type of brazen exploration and questioning my evolving faith asked of me. I realize now that in part this was because I did not know where to look and that devotional literature is not a new genre by any means. To quote a BCC writer and historian, J. Stapley,
Scholars of all sorts have been dealing with historiographical and epistemological concerns over Mormonism for much longer then 10 years. Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling is over ten years old, but his JS and the Beginnings of Mormonism was published in 1988. Even BH Roberts was writing for Americana magazine at the beginning of the century.
I suppose then, in part, my being exposed to what feels like new Mormon non-fiction is because I am young— accumulation takes time—in part because I haven’t invested the time I hope to in knowing the larger timeline. I don’t think my experience of not knowing which Mormon writing to turn to is uncommon. I think many people feel lost and hopeless within their Mormonism precisely because they do not know or haven’t been exposed to writing that might help them.
In my own personal life the literary landscape is reforming, expanding, and taking space both on my bookshelves and in my mind. This has helped to make religion relevant to me and I see this landscape making a difference for people like my younger sister, for whom the church will never be less complicated than it was for me.
As a student, I found solace in authors like Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Terry Tempest Williams, Scott Russell Saunders, Eduardo Galeano, Ben Okri, and Maggie Nelson, and poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mark Doty, John Donne and Elizabeth Bishop. But with the exception of Terry Tempest Williams, I was not finding many books that overtly took on the task of faith and doubt within Mormonism. I know now that there were books I could have turned to, but they were not introduced to me by leaders, friends, social media and certainly not in my literature classes (much in part because a literature or creative writing class was not the correct context, at least not yet for Mormon writing).
A decade ago I did not realize that what I was missing and wanting were words from my own people. Not a road map or a how to or an instruction manual. Not books that side-stepped difficulty or worked on the pretense that all was always well in Zion, but also books that did not dwell in anger or pessimism. As another BCC blogger, Kristine H. so aptly said,
I think it might be worth thinking about these shifts as, in some ways, a return. I’m thinking about Bryan Evenson and Neil LaBute and their aggressive transgressiveness–it seems to me that a lot of the good stuff going on now has to do with people finding ways to complicate narratives rather than just trying to place themselves on the pro- or anti- side of the old narrative.
At the time of my initial transformation of faith as a young college student who was freshly returned from a mission, I did not know much, if any, Mormon literature that allowed me to “complicate my narrative” while remaining faithful. I certainly wasn’t ready at the time to read Evenson or LaBute, nor would it likely have been helpful in helping me realize there was a space for me. However, I have found subsequent examples since that time that do make the space of honest questioning and parsing. These have powerful teaching tools in navigating the complex space of spirituality within a religion.
At the time I was working through a faith transition without wanting to leave my faith, I often felt alone, or like I was a burden to those who didn’t have questions to speak up. Rough Stone Rolling had recently, and at the time it felt a little rebelliously (ha!) come into my life, and began a filling in of a void in my literary home. I didn’t realize how much I needed the grappling words of Mormon writers.
I am only now unearthing, much because of books like ‘Mormon Feminism’ the many non-fiction writers that were writing things that would have helped me in my earlier years.. Even if I knew about this writing then, these works were stipulated as much too radical and scary, as many of the authors had excommunicated after writing them (http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/lifestyle/54514350-80/church-excommunicated-faith-hanks.html.csp) and so I didn’t even bother to open the books. I am sad for the words I missed out on then, but excited as some of them become unearthed to take shape and place within my current spiritual context. The humanness in traversing across real and difficult questions gives life to my own spiritual story.
In the past year I have read several books by Mormon authors that are doing the exciting work that Kristine had mentioned of “complicating the narrative”. I see books like, Letters to a Young Mormon and Future Mormon by Adam Miller; Navigating a Mormon Faith Crisis by Thomas Wirthlin Mcconkie; Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks; Planted by Patrick Mason; The Living Faith Series produced by the Maxwell Institute (which Letters and Planted come from); Mormon Feminism co-edited by Rachel Hunt Steenblick and Joanna Brooks; Women at Church by Neylan Mcbaine; and When Mormons Doubt by Jon Ogden along with dozens of others (please expand the list in the comments!) not named here that are actively doing work to change the landscape. I know I am missing many, many titles here, I would love to know the Mormon books, both historically and contemporarily, that you’ve read that have changed your spiritual landscape.
While this post focuses on non-fiction, the fiction realm, which has always been more comfortable in jumping into complication has also begun to expand within my own periphery. Friends who were once hesitant to write about their Mormonism in their fiction MFA programs have begun to write stories that do indeed complicate the narrative and their stories have moved me to see my own faith in new ways. One example here writer Kate Finlinson (seriously worth heading over to read): http://www.joylandmagazine.com/regions/los-angeles/pioneer-trek.
For me, these published and emerging titles are part of the necessary making of more space—on bookshelves, in lectures, in conversations and discussions that don’t have to be secret. These books and stories are a continuation of doing the work of making space within our religious writing.
‘When Mormons Doubt’, the book I mention at the beginning of this post, spurred lots of thought and questions about contemporary Mormon non-fiction writing. Jon Ogden writes with a deliberate, thoughtful and clear voice that understands the vitality in creating a more mature space that supersedes culture when culture seems to have intersected itself overwhelmingly with a stifling sense of how things must be done. I went through some of my undergraduate courses and then my MFA with Jon in 2007-2011 and then for several years we fell out of touch. When I read his book I was not surprised at Jon’s ability and insistence that we must make space within our religion for the unconventional believers, because turns out, they aren’t so unconventional after all, but very much an important and emerging part of Mormonism. I was however, surprised that so many of our religious thoughts aligned when neither of us were writing about it in the four years that we had work-shopped our writing together. I wished that at the time we’d had more examples of overt Mormon writing that broached thinking and believing differently as a reasonable and worthy celebration of faith, and not as a reason to leave religion all together. I don’t think it is anyone’s fault that we weren’t exposed to more Mormon writers as students. John Donne is a far better choice to explore God than any Mormon literature I’ve come across. Clearly we have a ways to go as a young religion, but I feel optimistic about the breadth of Mormon writing emerging I feel inspired to dig further into the past to read what was written in the century before me.
Jon’s book falls easily into a tangible space within Mormonism that may have eased assumed spiritual loneliness that I experienced as I rebuilt my faith over the past ten years. I imagine that many people would have benefitted from words in books that could cross the spaces that seemed unnecessarily vast and void of fellow travelers.
As one example, I see Jon’s book as a literal manifestation of the space that is being planted, sown and harvested within the Mormon landscape. There is something so valuable about an actual artifact to point to, a book takes its place on a shelf, in a home, in a bookstore, and is thus insistent upon taking up some sort of space. I think of “Jesus the Christ” by James Talmage and how the physical presence of that book, the fact that in a single suitcase that provided me with everything I needed in a foreign country for 18 months, it was important enough for me to take up some of that weight and space in books speaks to the cultural value we place on words that take up space in our religion.
What are the books that have made a difference for you spiritually, both recently and in the past?