Big Table Mormonism: A Response to Joanna Brooks’ _The Book of Mormon Girl_

Note: My talented wife, Anne Marie Ogden Stewart, previously wrote an insightful review  about The Book of Mormon Girl. This piece is meant to be a companion piece to that one, so I recommend you read Anne’s post as well.

Whether it was the “Pantspocalypse,” the bloggers at Feminist Mormon Housewives/ Exponent ,or faithful Mormon feminist Judy Dushku’s pointed critique of Mitt Romney, Mormon Feminists have been very prominent as of late. Call it a revival, call it a resurgence, call it what you will, but the advent of the internet and the increasing dialogue about the roles of women in American and world society has brought Mormon feminists out of their hiding places and rhetorical bomb shelters. Mormon Feminists have searched for each other and banded together. They have clamored for an equal voice in a society that has often tried to silence them and they have implored to their fellow Latter-day Saints to see them as fellow-pilgrims and not as antagonists of the faith. At the forefront of this effort has been the courageous Joanna Brooks,  a professor of Comparative Literature at San Diego State University; a prominent blogger at Ask Mormon Girl and Religion Dispatches; a high profile resource about Mormonism for CNN, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and NBC Rock Center; as well as the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of American Faith.

 Having loved Brooks’ blog posts, watched/read many of the interviews she was involved in, and learned to appreciate her compassionate and thoughtful approach to Mormonism, I bought a copy of The Book of Mormon Girl for my wife Anne for Christmas. Anne and I consider ourselves devout Mormons. We connect deeply with and believe in Mormon scripture and theology; we love the heritage of having Mormon pioneer ancestors; I love to study the intimate details of Mormon history (which I often write plays and screenplays about), while Anne has a deep passion for Old Testament studies; as lovers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, we’re passionate believers in Jesus Christ, and gratefully claim him as our Redeemer and Savior; we believe in the core tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and strive to find a place in our faith community. Despite that heartfelt and abiding faith, however, there have been times when we have felt like we were foreigners in our own religion.

This occasional alienation we have felt may have been a cultural quality that we thought had been overemphasized, a Pharisee-like pattern we find in certain elements and sub-groups of the membership, or a coldness we have received (or we have seen others receive) because of this or that circumstance. These, of course, are exceptions rather than the rule. I personally have found that Mormonism makes people better, if it is lived in the way it has been outlined by the scriptures and the tenets of the faith. And, of course, it is so much better to concern oneself with the beam in one’s own eye, than the mote that is in our neighbor’s eye.

Yet there are still those moments of alienation, of loneliness, of feeling like we don’t quite fit in, despite our best efforts (which are often still insufficient) to keep peace and show love. Discipleship will always have its strains, and standing up for what you believe in, whether it is to the secular world, or even to those who share many points of common faith, is designed to be a lonesome ordeal. If there is a “mold” for the “typical” Mormons, there have been times where we felt like we didn’t fit it.            

It is here that works like Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl have given me and my wife hope.

The Book of Mormon Girl is Joanna Brooks’ memoir concerning her faith. She begins with the wistful memories of a faithful Mormon family life during her childhood; continues through the self conscious ordeals of adolescence (seen through the prism of Brooks’ fascination with 1970s/1980s Mormon teen icon Marie Osmond); passes through her time at BYU in the early 1990s when she received persecution for her more liberal beliefs, as well as the crack down on Mormon feminists and intellectuals in the Church; to a point of faith crises where she returns her BYU degree to the university and becomes inactive in the Church; to her marrying a wonderful Jewish man; to her yearning to return and re-connect to her religious legacy and belief system, especially once she’s had children and wants them to participate in their spiritual heritage; to another challenge once she’s re-entered the fold, in the form of the Proposition 8 conflict in her home state of California. It is a journey of ache, of yearning, of cultural dissonance, of the value and power of faith, as well as the drawbacks of zealous dogma. It is a vulnerable, beautiful story.

In the process of telling this story, Joanna’s compassion and inclusiveness is spilled onto every page. Having been ostracized, having been excluded, having been pushed to the fringe (when she so desperately wanted to be in the heart) of her faith, Joanna knows what it is like to feel a cold shoulder or to hear the edge of contempt in a person’s voice. She knows what it’s like when someone tries to make you feel small or powerless. She knows what it is like to be punished for the sake of her integrity.  Thus it is so very evident in her work that she doesn’t want to inflict or afflict anyone in the same way. She wants to be a balm of healing, not a rod of correction. She wants to be a source of love, not a reason for contention. 

Thus she strikes a very beautiful balance in her work, even to those who would be considered on the other side of the fence. It’s very touching when I’ve read or heard her describe former priesthood leaders, or even Mitt Romney, men or women whom she may have ideological differences with, but whom she shows a great deal of love, understanding and compassion towards. She is not the sort to set up straw patriarchs and then knock them down. She knows that others are standing in a place of faith and integrity, just as she is. One does not have to agree with Joanna to feel her love. She allows the privilege of diversity of belief, even on the fine points within the Church, and implores for the same privilege.

There is an irony in Mormon culture. Mormonism has one of the most Universalist belief systems in Judeo-Christian-Muslim religion. And yet we have the tendency to be clannish.

Mormons believe very few people go to “hell.” We believe in a tiered heaven, where there is a Celestial Kingdom, a Terestial Kingdom, and a Telestial Kingdom in Heaven. All of these “kingdoms” (which I suspect is an insufficient term) are superior by light years to what we experience in this life. The most depraved, the most willfully cunning, the most rebellious in this life, will all be included in the love and grace of Christ.

This grace can be accessed in this life, or in the next life, whenever the opportunity arises and that person is prepared to accept or reject. One does not miss out on this opportunity, no matter what circumstances or country or time they were born into. The pagan in ancient Greece can access this, just as well as the non-Christian aboriginal in Australia, just as well as the African Christian convert, just as well as the secular Jew in modern New York, just as well as the Buddhist peasant in Asia who has hardly even heard of Christ. This is extended to all people, all races, all genders, and, yes, all religions. Goodness within people of all creeds, colors, and sizes will be recognized by an insightful and compassionate God.

One does not need to have been a Mormon, or even a Christian, in this life to be judged worthy of one of these kingdoms. It is rather an effect of Christ’s grace. Whatever ordinances, such as baptism, that are needed for salvation or exaltation can be conferred upon those people later, which is the impetus for Mormon proxy ordinance work done on behalf of the deceased in their temples. Only the “sons of perdition,” those who willfully and knowingly reject this of their own free will and choice, and who would rather wander out into the darkness than to be in league with light, will ultimately condemn themselves to the classic “hell.” Such people, Mormons believe, will be few and far between. For all else, Christ has a place.  This knowledge, Mormons believe, was bestowed upon Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in a vision after they were praying about a passage in Paul’s epistles.

I was delighted to see Terryl and Fiona Givens emphasize this point in their brilliant book The God Who Weeps:

God is personally invested in shepherding His children through the process of mortality and beyond; His desires are set upon the whole human family, not upon a select few. He is not predisposed to just the fast learners, the naturally inclined, or the morally gifted. The project of human advancement that God designed offers a hope to the entire human race. It is universal in its appeal and reach alike (p. 77). 

The Givens also say later in the book, “Heaven is not a club we enter. Heaven is a state we attain, in accordance with our ‘capacity to receive’ a blessed and sanctified nature” (p. 88).

The Givens also cite Joseph Smith’s “King Follett Discourse” for this Universalist bent in Mormonism:

“All sins, and all blasphemies, and every transgression, except one, that man can be guilty of, may be forgiven; and there is a salvation for all men, either in this world or the world to come, who have not committed the unpardonable sin, there being a provision either in this world or the world of spirits. Hence God hath made a provision that every spirit in the eternal world can be ferreted out and saved…”

And yet some of us as modern Mormons have this tendency to exclude, to isolate, to divide. Culturally, we are apt to be clannish and political. We have had policies in our past that cut off an entire race (a policy that has been corrected in the modern Church, thankfully), as well as current policies that seem to discriminate by gender. And our relationship with the homosexual community has been historically contentious, despite some good efforts on the Church’s part recently to bridge that chasm of pain and hurt. Within our Church’s history, there have been plenty of points where we were the persecuted ones, where we were the ones made to appear to be aliens, foreigners, and enemies. We were killed, we were driven, we were raped, we were disenfranchised, we were hated. I’m afraid this may have made us defensive at times, protective… afraid. And intolerance is born, not from a natural inclination to hate, but rather a natural inclination to protect. Perhaps we have become too protective, too afraid.

Joanna Brooks’ remedy for that fear and protectiveness is love and tolerance. Even to, perhaps especially to, those who some may see as miscasts of the faith, the seemingly “unorthodox.” For, I’ll tell you, that list of the unorthodox and disaffected is growing, as secularism has gained stronger footholds within society and the past couple of decades of culture wars have left many with a bitter taste in their mouth towards organized religion. Elder Marlin K. Jensen said recently, “maybe since Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now.”

Elder Jensen also went on to say in the same context, when asked about the pressing issues surrounding these apostasies:

“I could see a committee of forty people working on your question for ten years and not coming up with an answer. I think that the question has an application to gay members of the church or of society. I don’t think that straight people have done a good job yet, of providing an atmosphere of safety and a welcoming place. We need to do the same for those people who are feeling disaffected ““ for whatever reason”¦ doctrinally, or socially. I mean, if we really are truly Christian, it has to start there. Being less judgmental. Being more open and welcoming and inclusive. Someone asked Robert Frost once, ‘What’s the ugliest word in the English language?’ And he said, ‘Exclusive.’ I think it is, too, in a way. So, if that environment can be created, and it should be, but often in the church, when someone comes with a bit of a prickly question, he’ll be met with a bishop who number one, doesn’t know the answer. Number two, he snaps and says, ‘Get in line and don’t question the prophet, and get back and do your home teaching.’ And that isn’t helpful in most cases. So, we need to educate our leaders better, I think, to be sympathetic and empathetic and to draw out of these people where they are coming from and what’s brought them to the point they are at. What they have read, what they are thinking is, and try to understand them. Sometimes that alone is enough to help someone through a hard time. But beyond that, I think we really need to figure out a way to live a little bit with people who may never get completely settled.”

This need to accept, to understand, to include, to strive positively with the disaffected is becominga  more and more urgent need to members of the Church. We all have a friend, or a cousin, or a sibling, or a parent, or nephew, or a niece, or a spouse, or a child who is struggling with their faith or their worldview. To handle these issues, we need a whole lotta of Christ-like love and a more expansive view of our own belief system. We can’t get caught with exclusionary tactics and hope that solves personal and societal conflicts. No, that will only exacerbate them. Theologically, we are one of the most inclusive religions out there. Culturally, however, we have many miles to go before we sleep.

This is one of the major points that Joanna Brooks makes. She was the one who had been pushed out, she was the one had been stifled by an intolerant environment– and she loved her religion! She wasn’t looking to leave! How much worse off are those who are struggling from the get go.

“What do we do with ourselves when we find we have failed to become the adults we have dreamed of as pious children?” Brooks asks in The Book of Mormon Girl. “What do we do when the church of our childhoods no longer treasures our names?” (p. 199).

Fortunately, for Brooks and and for her readers who are recipients of her universal experiences, our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother were much more mindful of her than were her own spiritual brothers and sisters. Like in the parable to the Prodigal Son, or the conflict within Lehi’s family, siblings are often rivals… they are more apt to judge and condemn each other. Yet the parent of the prodigal child– and especially in the case of our Heavenly Parents, who are painted as especially forgiving in the parable– have yearned for the safety and society of their beautiful child. They have prayed and dreamed and cried out for this reunion. They have been ready to welcome their child with a ring and a feast. This is the kind of love that Joanna is trying to cultivate in The Book of Mormon Girl:

I don’t want to blame anyone. I want to do what my ancestors did: look west and dream up a new country for my children. I just want to tell my story. Because the tradition is young, and the next chapter is yet to be written. And ours may be a faith that is big enough for all our stories.

I want a faith as expansive as the skies above the Eastern Sierras at eleven thousand feet. I want to rest my back against lodgepoles pines with you and puzzle out the mysteries. I want a faith as handmade as a Pioneer Day dinner table set with a thousand cream-of-chicken-soup casseroles and wedding present Crock-Pots, a table with room enough for everyone: male and female, black and white, gay and straight, perfect and imperfect, orthodox or unorthodox, Mormon, Jew, or gentile (p. 200).

Joanna returned back to that Pioneer Day feast. She still celebrates the faith of her ancestors and teaches her children from the Book of Mormon, as well as from their father’s Torah. She communes with her Heavenly Parents, and calls upon the Grace of Christ. She receives personal revelation and cherishes the Holy Spirit. She is a Mormon, true blue, through and through, even though her political beliefs may not line up with yours, and even though she may seem “soft” on issues that you may see as important. She may not be what you would typically imagine as a Mormon, you may even think she doesn’t deserve that title at all. You may think that heaven is that exclusive country club, and that she does not meet the criteria you deem necessary for that celestial golf course.

Even if you think that, as you jealously glance at her from across our Father’s and Mother’s table that has been erected with a feast in her honor, I believe that she is looking back right at you and trying to tell you that she loves you. That’s the spirit with which she has written her book.


11 thoughts on “Big Table Mormonism: A Response to Joanna Brooks’ _The Book of Mormon Girl_”

  1. Okay, I get that this book meets your criteria for the inclusive vision of Mormonism that you prefer. Let’s push this a bit further, though, and get into some literary analysis. From a literary perspective, how does Brooks rhetorically position herself? What tools and stances does she use and take to arrive at her position?

    For example, you say “One does not have to agree with Joanna to feel her love.”

    How does she accomplish this? What does she do (with words) to make you feel that?

  2. Great book. Great review. Great secondary sources. I’m a happy procrastinator for having paused here today.

  3. @ William, you does she accoomplish the feeling of love throughout the book? Well, since she’s a writer her job is to describe things so that we can all see, feel and understand what she’s trying to explain.
    I read this book last year and I think about various parts of the book all the time. It’s a GREAT read.

  4. Joanna Brooks describes a mormonism where I can feel at home, now – and I hope/believe – always. That Big Table Mormonism and communion, where I do not feel a stranger in my own religious tribe – I’d like to help set that table! I’d like to welcome other travelers – as many as would like to come. When I was about to be baptized at the age of eight, I wondered how I could make such a covenant – a promise to follow a path through a future I could not see. At that moment, by the water, there was a soft but clear impression; “I will always be there to help you”. That help has most often been extended by fellow pilgrims who have shared their own life-experiences. One of those pilgrims has been Joanna Brooks. A path of discipleship can be lonely, sure, but not as lonely as we tend to make it! Thank you for this beautiful review. I agree …

  5. .

    Um. Forgive me, but William’s questions remains unanswered: What rhetorical tools is Joanna employing to accomplish what we’re all praising her for accomplishing? HOW is she doing what she’s doing?

  6. That’s a little more strongly worded than I would have done. To expand:

    I’ve read quite a few reactions/reviews of this book. Yes, at some point I should maybe read it myself. But I find it curious with the exception of Blair Hodges’ excellent review, much of what I’m seeing is either snark or unabashed enthusiasm.

    What I’m interested in is how Brooks specifically positions herself rhetorically in relation to both Mormonism and secular humanism (or however you want to term it). I have a natural distrust of generic talk about love and acceptance. I also have a natural distrust of dismissiveness of non-conventional LDS voices. In other words, neither a rigid definition of Mormon community nor an amorphous big tent approach seem to me to be of much value given the complexity of Mormon doctrine, history, practice, community, etc. and American multiculti-ism.

    So that’s why I asked. If I have the time and inclination, I suppose I’ll answer it for myself.

  7. William,

    I don’t have the time to answer your question right now, but I can definitely address that if you want.

    This wasn’t meant to be as much of an academic analysis as you were looking for. That’s why I titled it a “response.” It was more of a more of a personal reaction that way. But I can certainly address what you’re asking for when I’ve got some more time on my hands.

  8. I didn’t know what I was looking for until I read your personal response. It just reminded me of all the reading I had done when the book was first published and then the second wave when it was nationally published.

  9. Part of what keeps me from reading this book is that I already feel like I know how it will unfold. I worry that I’ll get bored with it quickly and end up simply going through the motions of reading.

    Besides, I’m not the biggest Brooks fan. I admire her efforts to give hope to marginalized Mormons and keep them in the Church, and I like the idea of the Big Table, but I don’t feel a strong connection to her take on contemporary Mormonism. Partly I think this is because I’m not her primary audience. Even so, I need to read the book before I can really articulate how I feel in detail about her message.

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