I gave a version of these remarks last night as part of the panel discussion at Writ & Vision in Provo.
In her foreword to Ashley Mae Hoiland’s new book, One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, Kristin Matthews aptly identifies its participation in “a markedly female tradition of Christian writing,” noting its affinities with the work of writers like Mary Oliver, Louise Glück, and Annie Dillard, as well as medieval mystics like Hildegard von Bingen and Julian of Norwich (xviii-xx). That’s esteemed company! Add to which that this is the first monograph published by a woman in the history of the Maxwell Institute or FARMS, and it becomes clear that One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly is opening up new avenues for Mormon women’s writing. I’d like to talk for a few minutes tonight about what those avenues might be, exactly, by way of arguing that this book is as important for Mormon men to read as it is for Mormon women.
As a backdrop, though, I need to talk for a minute about correlation—or, to give it its proper name, priesthood correlation—which entailed bringing various Church auxiliaries and programs under centralized priesthood management. As part of this initiative, the Relief Society Magazine ceased publication in December 1970. (The editorial announcing cessation ended with these words: “Moriturae te salutamus [We who are about to die salute you.]” ) This periodical, along with its predecessor, The Women’s Exponent, provided more or less official Church venues for women’s writing. The shift to correlated publications brought advantages and disadvantages. For the better, women who contributed to the new magazines now reached a mixed-gender audience: men who may have been unlikely to read the Relief Society Magazine now had occasion to encounter some of its writers. For the worse, the fact of sharing space with male writers simply meant a diminishment of female voices overall—and a discontinuation of regular fiction features and the like. Broadly, priesthood correlation meant that women’s voices had less official bandwidth than before, in part due to the fact that men can hold the priesthood and women can’t. Consequently, a magisterium that was always gendered male in significant ways became even more so.
I want to suggest that this gendered structure informs the phenomenon of “faith crisis” and the burgeoning literature aimed at addressing it. One feature of this development is the perceived sterility of traditional apologetics, that hyper-modern empiricist program of defending the faith against its critics. In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that FARMS never published a monograph by a woman (although a few women did publish articles in FARMS journals or edit collections of essays), because the apologetic enterprise had built into it an assumed cozy relationship with the magisterium, which made male participation seem more natural than female. Faced with criticisms of the Church, people looked to FARMS for responses that they could perceive as official, and this expectation worked in tandem with the prevailing gender dynamic to produce a masculinized magisterial edifice whose very crumbling lies near the heart of the faith crisis phenomenon, especially as this pertains to women’s experience in the Church.
In addition to being gorgeously written, incisively perceptive, and emotionally rich, Ashmae’s book has the virtue of not even attempting to be magisterial. Crises of faith in institutions don’t get resolved by urging faith in institutions. Rather than attempt to renew trust in institutions, Ashmae writes: “I learned to trust my story” (209). But God isn’t in her story alone:
I told my story. I realized that my story is not the point, but rather that I can embrace the fact that every person has the starring role in their own story, that we are a million ways different. We are a field of wildflowers together when we tell our story. When I listen to the stories of others, when I cry not just for the hard parts of my own story, but for the hard part in others’, when I laugh together and love the stories I do not understand, when I recognize that my story is so small, but also so big, then I find Christ there. Then I picture myself entering a brightly colored room where everyone is cheering for me, not because I have figured out the answers but because I was brave enough to try. (211)
This isn’t solipsistic, go-your-own-way religion: this is communal in a deeply Mormon way, adding to our baptismal covenant to mourn with those who mourn a promise to laugh with those who laugh. The institution still has value, but primarily as a vehicle for this communion, and if we really want to be part of that, Ashmae seems to be saying, we need the courage to tell our own stories. She’s said that learning to tell her own story wasn’t easy: so many cultural elements both within and without Mormonism invite women to think that their stories aren’t worth telling, and Ashmae wasn’t exempt from these pressures. She has talked about the anxiety of publishing a book in a series all of whose previous authors are very accomplished older men with Ph.D.s: “I’m just a stay-at-home mom,” she’d say, “How am I possibly qualified to do this?” But, with the support of friends, she found the courage not only to tell her story, but to believe that she even had one to tell. The resulting book revealed to her, and now reveals to us, that her story was very worth telling indeed, and it nudges us toward the revelation of our own stories, both to ourselves and to others.
I hope that Ashmae’s courage inspires more Mormon women to believe their stories worth telling. As a people, we need those stories, and we need them badly. It’s a very good thing that the Maxwell Institute has cracked the door open a little wider for those stories by providing an institutional venue for this book. But I also think that Mormon men need to find the same courage, and just as badly. We can no longer hide behind the magisterium that priesthood ordination has long seemed to offer us. We are more than the offices we bear and the callings we fulfill. One of my favorite sections of the book talks about the way that Ashmae’s children have taught her to play again. “My children pull me along into their world where play is mandatory,” she says, “because my world of answers bores them” (133). (Which leads me to ask: is the Gospel truer in Nursery than in Sunday School? Maybe.) As Mormon men, we have been the bearers of answers for too long, and at this point in our history it seems we’re in danger of being crushed by an empty carapace. All that responsibility has cut us off from the greater communion for which we might hunger without even realizing it—a communion in which women and men enrich each other through their stories. Ashmae’s own epiphany can guide us, though: “I discovered I was not in crisis—rather, I am an explorer” (209). Her book, with its invitation for all of us, whatever our gender, to undertake the courageous exploration of our own stories and to bravely share them so that we can find God in the communal telling—well, that looks an awful lot like Zion to me.
 Marianne C. Sharp, “Editorial,” The Relief Society Magazine, 57.12 (Dec. 1970), 895. Available here.