Elegy For Mormonism
Walter Kirn recalls how his family joined the LDS Church in the mid-1970s, when his father had a breakdown:
It began when his own father died of lung cancer after a horrifying, swift decline. When my father returned from the funeral in Ohio, his legal practice was failing for lack of clients. Some mornings he didn’t bother to go to work, just sat on the bench at his bus stop and browsed the paper, waving on the bus drivers when they pulled over. He started talking to himself in public, while eating in restaurants or buying shotgun shells. The tone of his ramblings was punitive, exasperated, like that of an angry coach. Addressing himself as “Walt,” in the third-person, he charged himself with foolishness and weakness. “Walt, you pathetic idiot,” he’d say. “Walt, you ridiculous stupid little ass.” Sometimes strangers heard him and turned to stare.
The story of how the Mormons came was this: Headed home from a job-hunting trip to Blackfoot, Idaho, while changing planes in Salt Lake City, my father suffered a breakdown in the terminal. His haunted mind attacked itself, nearly paralyzing him at the gate. He pulled himself together and boarded his flight, where he found himself seated beside a handsome young couple that radiated serenity and calm. They sensed his despair and started talking to him about their church, the center of their lives, and about their belief that the family is eternal, a permanently bonded sacred unit. (One reason he listened to them, he later told me, is that there had just been a terrible flood in Idaho—the deadly Teton Dam disaster—and he’d heard stories of how thousands of Mormons had immediately dropped what they were doing and convoyed in from states across the West to perform acts of cleanup and reclamation.) The next morning, in his bed at home, he woke up thrashing from a nightmare. My mother threatened to leave him; she’d had enough. Flashing back to the couple on the plane, he opened the phone book, found a number, dialed it, and said he needed help. This minute. Now.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints must have been used to fielding such distress calls. They dispatched a rescue party instantly: another couple, retired, in their seventies. Within an hour, they were at my father’s side. They talked to him all morning behind closed doors and convinced him to go to church with them that Sunday. The service soothed him, lightening his mood. My mother saw this, grew hopeful, and didn’t leave him. The bicycle-riding missionaries showed up a few nights later.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” their prayers began. They sat hip to hip on our sagging, old blue sofa and milky beads of talcum-powder sweat ran down their temples and their cheeks. They blessed our family, our home. They blessed the lemonade. They asked that we hear their message with open minds. On the first night, they showed us a movie about a boy, Joseph Smith, who, one day in 1820, prayed in the woods behind his parents’ farm and found himself face to face with God and Jesus. The lessons that followed described what happened next, from Smith’s translation of a golden scripture that he found buried in a hillside, to the trials of his early disciples. Seeking peace to practice their new faith, they traveled west from settlement to settlement, harassed by mobs of brutal vigilantes who finally murdered Smith in Illinois. His people stayed strong, though. Under a brave new leader, Brigham Young, they undertook a 1,000-mile trek that brought them to Utah, their Zion in the wilderness.
The missionaries kept coming for six weeks, always at night, always hungry for our cookies. On Sundays, they sat next to us at services, one on each side of us, like gate posts. And then it was time; they told us we were ready. Standing in a pool of waist-deep water, dressed in white robes, we held our hands together as if to pray, let the missionaries clasp our wrists, leaned back, leaned back farther, and joined the Mormon Church.
Read the whole thing. Kirn lost his Mormon faith, but the things he kept make for a beautifully elegiac essay. Today, the kindness and brotherhood Mormons showed him in his troubled childhood, and in a difficult recent patch in a mid-life crisis, makes him defensive when others criticize them:
Attacks on Mormonism by liberal wits and their unlikely partners in ridicule, conservative evangelical Christians, instantly filled me with resentment, particularly when they made mention of “magic underwear” and other supposedly spooky, cultish aspects of Mormon doctrine and theology. On the other hand, legitimate reminders of the Church hierarchy’s decisive support for Proposition 8, the California gay marriage ban, disgusted me. Deeper, trickier emotions surfaced whenever I came across the media’s favorite visual emblem of the faith: a young male missionary in a shirt and tie with a black plastic name-badge pinned to his vest pocket. The image suggested that Mormons were squares and robots, a naïve, brainwashed army of the out-of-touch. That hurt a bit. It also tugged me back to a sad, frightened moment in my youth when these figures of fun were all my family had.
Kirn’s essay more or less argues that religion is less what you think and more what you do. It also argues that the best apologetic is simply being there, abiding in love. And — this is kind of a meta-point — it shows us that, to riff of of a point Eve Tushnet makes in another TAC context today, stories are more important than syllogisms.