An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘book groups’

Reading My New Book Group

I’m not sure how I ended up in three book groups this year. And I’m not sure how long the newest one will hang together. We are women of quite different backgrounds who connected at a writers’ conference. Laurel, who organized the group, is a retired English prof who oozes confidence born of years of success in the academic world. Thalia, a former newspaper columnist, oozes confidence born of privileged background and professional success. Both they and Leslie, a retired English teacher, are acquainted with prominent members of the Utah literati.

Somehow, I ended up being the first to choose a book. What could I choose that would appeal to these sophisticated women? I mostly read history and philosophy—books nobody else reads. Since all of us are writing memoir, I chose Krista Tippets’ Speaking of Faith, the account of her faith journey from Southern Baptist—to atheist—to defining her own idea of God and belief. Her book includes quotes from theologians, historians, and scientists describing their own search for meaning. Since Tippets doesn’t advocate any particular faith, I figured her book would be a safe choice for a group of varied or no religious belief.

Wrong.

Karma, who has a recent degree in English Literature, objected to Tippets’ rather sparse journalistic style—and her lack of presenting the reader with a conclusion about religious belief and practice. The discussion moved from Tippet’s book to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell’s work on religious myths. Karma, whose family background includes a strict, Finnish version of Lutheranism, asked me what my beliefs were. I said I had been a devout Mormon, but now don’t believe much of any particular religion—which probably puts me in the agnostic camp.

When Laurel quoted Jung and Campbell, Thalia asked how she reconciled her Mormon faith with these studies. Laurel gave the pat Mormon answers: The similarity of world-wide legends with biblical stories is because the Bible stories were told or revealed first, then carried to other cultures where they were altered. She added that religious ordinances are necessary to enter God’s presence and must be done with proper authority. Only the Catholic and Mormon churches claim to have that authority. Stopping just short of testimony bearing, she told us only one of these churches can be right.

I found it strange to hear Laurel defend Mormon doctrine with the same phrases I used for many years, but no longer believe. I’m uncomfortable with discussions of religion that involve devout believers. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I don’t like having to hide my emotional reaction to statements I find illogical.

Next month, our book does not involve religion. I hope the discussion will be less personal and emotional. If not, I may have to learn to shuffle cards (I’m pretty spastic), and replace book group with a bridge club.

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Revelation and the Book Group

I generally avoid my neighborhood (i.e. unofficial Relief Society) book group the months they choose a Mormon-themed book for the same reason I avoid Relief Society—Mormon religious discussions are mostly irrelevant to me now. But, this week I promised Tina, a dissatisfied book group member, that I would show up and suggest her radical ideas for improving the group—1) Don’t choose a book for the group you haven’t personally read, and 2) Don’t insist that book selections be junior high appropriate. Tina, convinced that uttering comments less than 100% positive might affect her standing in the group, wanted me to be her mouthpiece. Since I have no standing in the group—or in our—ward, I agreed.

I showed up 45 minutes late in order to avoid the discussion of Shattered Dreams, the memoir of a polygamist wife, and the ensuing commentary on Church doctrine. Unfortunately, the book discussion had not progressed into the usual neighborhood news exchange as quickly as usual. When I arrived, a lively debate about personal revelation was going strong.

The author believed she had received personal revelation that the doctrine of plural marriage was the key to salvation and that she should join LeBaron’s cult. My neighbors, of course, rejected the idea that her revelation came from God. When I arrived, they were heavily into a debate on how to tell the difference between revelation from God or from Satan.

A good sister related a story from a former prophet, Harold B. Lee as I recall. In this account, a man comes to the prophet and tells him he has received revelation that the Church is wrong about a teaching or policy. The prophet asks the fellow if he prays, fasts, reads the scriptures, attends his meetings, and pays tithing. The man answers no to every question, then the prophet asks how a man who keeps none of these commandments could receive an answer different from Church leaders who keep all the above. The humbled petitioner hangs his head and mutters, “I guess my revelation came from a different source.”

I’m pretty sure I have quoted that story in Relief Society and Sunday School lessons I’ve given over the past 40 years or so, but I no longer find it relevant. Experience has convinced me that most of what we call revelation comes from within. Probably unconsciously, we human beings litmus test ideas by emotional rather than logical criteria. The people who drank the Kool-aid in Jonestown believed they were following God’s will.

Humans have always developed religious practices—eventually codifying them into creeds and churches. I can’t quite picture God, who is no respecter of persons, consulting a checklist of church activity before sending messages to human petitioners.

I made Tina’s suggestions and left. Next month we’re reading The Help which should be safe. I doubt anyone wants to initiate a dialogue regarding past Church racial policies.

Thumbs Down on My Relief Society Book Group

The first counselor of my ward RS presidency is an avid reader and demonstrates a missionary zeal in trying to convert the uninitiated. I show up at her Book Group occasionally to offer support, but seldom read the choice of the month. The criteria for their book selections are: short, no sex, no violence, and no non-LDS ideas. Deseret Book is the preferred source.  It’s the taking-a-dose-of-medicine method—choose a book that is good for you and force yourself to take a certain number of pages a day until finished.

I’m not sure if it is actually possible to transform reluctant readers, but I’m pretty sure the offerings at Des Book won’t do it. Not that I have anything against DB. Occasionally they or a subsidiary offer a splendid title like Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations by James Kimball and Kent Miles. But most of their offerings reflect the sameness of my suburban Utah neighborhood.

I don’t read to meet someone just like me, only devout enough to get her prayers answered in 250 pages. I read to expand my horizons, to meet someone I think is not like me until I realize with a start that given the same set of circumstances I might behave in the same way. In fiction and memoir, I want to meet real or imaginary people in places I’ll probably never visit.  I relish living vicariously in other worlds—Frank McCourt’s wretched Irish childhood in Angela’s Ashes, Rae Vang’s nightmarish adolescence during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution (Spider Eaters), Fatima Mernissi’s Muslim childhood (Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood), and the Jewish neighborhoods of Chaim Potok’s novels. Nonfiction works for me too. I race through Malcolm Gladwell’s books (Tipping Point, Blink, The Outliers) lapping up each insight he reveals about how contemporary society works.

When I do read about Mormons, I want to meet complex people—the kind who might even exist in my ward beneath the surface of conformity—fictional women like Aspen Marooney, the respectable matron in Levi Peterson’s novel of the same name, who lives a lie born of a youthful transgression. And living women like Catherine Stokes, an African-American convert, who managed a demanding career in nursing while raising a daughter alone, and Cecile Pelous, a French, single woman who has founded an orphanage in Nepal (both in Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations).

Via the ward grapevine, I know the Twilight series is a popular clandestine read in my neighborhood. I guess there’s a discrepancy between what LDS women think is appropriate reading material and what they actually enjoy reading. Sexual tension piques the interest of most women and many great novels have used that theme. Maybe I can interest my RS sisters in a Jane Austen though I fear Mr. Darcy, even when portrayed by a younger, thinner Colin Firth, emits less sex appeal than a reformed vampire ogling a juicy neck.

Periodically, I try our ward book group. Someday I’ll find the book that will cause the good sisters of our ward to play sick on Sunday morning so they can stay home alone and finish the next chapter. The Bloggernacle   gives me hope. Maybe their example will convince my ward that true believers can venture beyond LDS authors and publishers and still maintain their testimonies.

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