When Jack Weyland Taught Me How to Be a Christian

Over at Sunstone this week, the inimitable Andi Pitcher Davis is, inimitably, launching a year-long project in participatory performance art. It is an ingenious project, really, even for Andi, and that is saying a lot. It’s called “Books of Mormons.” Here is the official description.

The minute I heard of this project, I started thinking about my own “Books of Mormon”–the books that defined my Latter-day Saint experience as a young person growing up in Oklahoma in the 1970s and 1980s. These, far more than any scripture or conference talk, shaped me into the Mormon that I am today.

Deta Petersen Neeley’s four-volume Book of Mormon novelization for children was one of these books. As were about a dozen books by Paul Dunn, the Yorganson brothers’ From First Date to Chosen Mate, the filmstrip versions of Johnny Lingo and Leon’s Truck. And, a little bit later, Sterling W. Sills’ The Majesty of Books.

But the Mormonest Mormon book of my personal Books of Mormons is Jack Weyland’s Charly. There is a story behind this. There is always a story.

Jack Weyland was the speaker at the first youth conference I ever attended, at the University of Oklahoma some time in the 1980s. The details are fuzzy, but the experience is locked in my mind. I had never read any of his books, but I was fully prepared to make fun of them, since, at the time, I fancied myself a budding intellectual, and I had somehow learned that making fun of the sort of books that Jack Weyland wrote was what the sort of people I fancied myself being often did.

His talks at youth conference were fine, but not earthshaking–similar to most of the other talks we at the time. But somehow, I ended up with a copy of Charly, which I gleefully read so that I could laugh at the oh-so-sappy Mormon sentimentality that, I imagined, dripped off of every page.

Mostly, the book cooperated. It was about what I expected. Act I: Mormon boy (Sam) meets fascinating, well-educated, non-Mormon girl (Charly). Boy likes girl, girl likes boy, religion gets in the way. Act II: Girl reads book of Mormon, girl gets testimony, girl gets baptized, boy and girl get engaged.

And then Sam discovers that his Charly has what people at the time charmingly referred to as “a past.” As in a sexual history. Sam becomes despondent, and he decides that he can’t marry “used merchandise.” He goes to the bishop to call everything off, and then there is Chapter Seven, which rocked my young world in a very good way.

Here are the first two pages of that chapter, freshly annotated along the lines that Andi suggests:

Boom! The bishop takes away Sam’s temple recommend on the grounds that, insisting that Charly is not worthy shows that he does not believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ. And that he is not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian.

Yeah, I know the problems. This is hardly an acceptable modern feminist sentiment. But it was the first time in my Mormon life that I ever saw somebody take on the worst elements of the purity culture in the name of Jesus Christ. After all of the lessons about chewed gum, licked donuts, and nails in boards, here was somebody who came right out and said that the prevailing Latter-day Saint view of sexual morality was fundamentally un-Christian.

And I also knew that, as enlightened and liberal as I liked to pretend to be, I was more like Sam than like the bishop. Charly forced me to come to terms with my own silly and un-Christian views of morality. It was the first time in my life that somebody made me look in the mirror and acknowledge that a trait that I considered a virtue was actually a vice.

Forty years later, I still own the copy of Charly that first changed my understanding of the atonement. And I don’t laugh at Jack Weyland anymore because he taught me the Gospel.

Comments

  1. What a cool idea! And I loved your story about Jack Weyland teaching you the gospel.

  2. I have no fond memories of Weyland’s Charly–no memories at all, really, except perhaps a vague sense that his portrayal of Native Americans, in connection with his characters’ move to North Dakota near a reservation, was almost certainly offensive by our standards today. But I will give props to two Weyland books–The Reunion and The Understudy–which I remember presenting white American Mormons in at least a few genuinely challenging ways, which both surprised me and endeared me to them.

  3. Kristine says:

    This passage was world up-ending for me, too.

  4. Our seminary teacher read Charly to us, in place of devotional every morning. I never would have chosen the book myself. I tend to be non-fiction bent, as the story grew, past it’s basic premise all of our hearts were turned. As Charly taught us to love in a way we hadn’t seen elsewhere. Our seminary teacher became a Bishop. I eventually dated his son. We used Charly references a lot, to help us grow as Christians. I never did read other Weyland books, but I will always be grateful my teacher did.

  5. I never read any Weyland, and was very disdainful of that whole genre.
    But I know a family wherein the father joined the Church after being college roommates with Weyland. He later become a famous doctor, probably top 3 in the world in his field, and his family is wonderful. Learning that story changed how I thought about Weyland, and this post shifts how I feel about his books, a bit.

  6. Kristine says:

    I don’t think you’re wrong to be skeptical, Ben S. Weyland’s books are deeply, deeply cheesy and a little bit dangerous, since we have a tendency to equate sentimentality and spirituality in ways that stunt growth. But there are some truly lovely moments in them, like the one Michael has pointed to here. For a self-righteous teen whose attention could be grabbed by romantic sappiness, they were useful–kind of like when moms sneak spinach into their kids’ milkshakes :)

  7. Spinach in milkshakes is the best, Kristine.

  8. Andrew H. says:

    This passage had a huge impact on me and my understanding of the atonement around age 14 in the early 80s. After ingesting so much purity culture, this both surprised me and immediately spoke to me.
    Also, I was pleasantly surprised by Charly’s sex-positive attitude after marriage. In a Relief Society lesson, a teacher asked the sisters what enjoyable activities they with their husbands, and Charly says something like “My husband and I enjoy having sex together!”, shocking the class. In reality bragging about your sex life in church could pretty easily come off as rude, but the idea of talking positively about sex at church was eye-opening to me at that age.

  9. I always loved that Weyland was a physical science teacher at Ricks. I didn’t have any classes from him, but I knew a lot of people who did.

  10. This is nice Michael. To be able to learn from both Brodsky and Weyland shows that you have a broad and receptive pallette. I believe this was an important book for many adolescent Mormons of our era, and a little bit of an antidote to judgmental zeal slipped in to our popular culture at the time. I still hate that Weyland killed Charly though.

  11. My freshman year at BYU (1988) I developed a friendship with a small group of guys in the dorms on our floor that included Jack’s oldest son, Dan. We did everything together that year and I recall early on one of us asking if he was related to that LDS novelist, Jack. I can’t recall whether the word cheesy came up but it was certainly asked somewhat in jest. Dan didn’t hesitate in explaining that yes, this was his father and that his Dad was earnest in trying to connect with the adolescents of the Church with his writing. That he felt inspired to write and regularly sought that inspiration as he explored topics and storylines to pursue. We invited Dan to encourage his Dad to write a book about us as a group of somewhat unruly future missionaries trying to figure out their future as seedlings in the soil of BYU. Jack never bit on the narrative we proposed and maybe that’s for the best.

    My father’s library which was broad and extensive given his personal interests in all things Church related with a special focus on history, included several of Weyland’s novels as well as those of the Yorgason brothers. I read Charly before I met Dan and I recall pulling Sam off the shelf over Christmas break. Neither one of them had as much of an impact on me as did what I learned from my interactions with Dan. I’ve always respected Weyland as an influencer for good not so much because of his novels but because of the kind of son he and his wife, Sherry, raised. Dan was a fun loving but serious student and a stalwart in the faith while also open to the kinds of deep philosophical discussions that might tend to come up during late night bull sessions. I greatly appreciate his influence in my life during that formative year.

  12. I love hearing first-person transformational narratives. It’s like garnering the power of a really good testimony meeting: raw, honest, individual, and so incredibly personal that what someone else has discovered paradoxically takes on some level of universality. Nicely told and what a cool performance art experience. I don’t know quite why the culture of the church became so early and deeply set in my own soul – I’ve wondered if it was the earnestness of my parents’ conversion experiences and the incredible power of their search for belonging on an impressionable child – but it took me what feels like a ridiculously long time to be saved while I rode the salvation barge. For me the most profound moment of discovering the Christianity in Mormonism came at the emotionalized end of Richard Dutcher’s “Brigham City.” I was embarrassingly near my 40s when I saw it but an embarrassing bulk of my being Christian settled out about then. Better late than never.

  13. Odd. I was an office mate with Jack in the mid 60s as physics grad students at BYU. He was one of the most introverted people. I never knew him well. But, even odder, I lived the Charly story. The girl I married was someone I had known a long time. When I went on a mission she got married. She was divorced when I returned and we met again at BYU. The “damaged goods” meme briefly crossed my mind until I fell completely in love with her. When we kissed for the first time, I knew the gravity of that and promised, silently, that I would never hurt her. I never did. She passed away some 11 years ago after a long, happy, and fruitful marriage. (We loved the physical parts.)

    I am wondering if Jack may have heard my story…. Nah.

  14. I’d had little interaction with LDS and Christian writers growing up; my mother was more into sci-fi and fantasy. Even as I grew and found my own to enjoy, it was more toward young women who found their own strength (and didn’t annoyingly decide to toss it all for love). Might be something to add to my book list.

    When I first read the title, I wondered how you got inspiration from the exercise guru (Jack LaLanne). -That- would be an interesting story.

  15. Amen to everything Bonnie said above. I really enjoyed this post, Michael

  16. I loved this book. I learned how to define the concept of love from this book and first experienced betrayal from its sequel. It has profoundly wounded and shaped my relationship with my faith and my family for nearly two decades.
    It was on the Sunday-approved bookshelf in the backroom. I was much too old for the homemade quiet book and a little too little for the row of my older sisters’ Jack Weylands, but I devoured them anyway. Charly was my favorite. I was going to be just like her when I grew up. I taught myself how to do my make-up by looking at the cover of this book. I loved and admired her enthusiastic spirit. In my mind I was Charly. I read it 3 times before I noticed the sequel Sam lying on top of the little ledge the neatly and chronologically stacked Ensign Magazines created hanging out of the bottom shelf. I didn’t realize there was a sequel. I was elated and heartbroken in one afternoon.
    I cried. My young heart was still trying to figure out exactly what love was all about and eternal marriage – that made the entire ending of Charly ok and eternal polygamy was not ok and I thought my US history teacher was just being “anti-mormon” when she had spoken about this very concept earlier in the school year. I sat there with my history textbook on my parents bed with the ‘P,PH’ World Book Encyclopedia and I added Mcconkie’s Mormon Doctrine to the top of the stack, but really just to show my father, who was bishop at the time that I was to be taken seriously with my question when he would ever come home from church. He eventually came home, listened to me long enough to realize that I was upset about something that petty girls shouldn’t be worried about and responded with his usual letter-of-the-law, do Bednar proud curtness: “wickedness never was happiness.” That might not be the only gospel taught in the book, but it’s the one from the reading experience that’s impacted my life the most.

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