When I was young, I bought wholesale into the religion of my parents, as all children do.
A child accepts all that he is taught without question. He is taught to love and obey his parents, and to trust their guidance. If his parents tell him, "It is so," then it must be so.
Even the most fantastic stories in this way become truth to a young mind.
In my family, the truth was that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that he had discovered golden plates which revealed another testament of Jesus Christ. The truth was that Nephi and Omni and Moroni and the other prophets of the Book of Mormon were also prophets of God. The truth was that this life was but a temporal manifestation of a grand, extended spiritual existence, an existence that existed prior to physical birth, and an existence that would continue eternally after death.
The truth was also that we could not drink coffee or tea or cola; on Sundays, we did nothing but attend church (as a child, the few times that we ever went to the grocery store on the Sabbath left me feeling dirty, unclean); we had Family Home Evening on Monday nights; we never took the Lord's Name in vain; we bore our testimonies on Fast Sunday; we attended primary, seminary, priesthood; we called adults Brother Watson and Sister Smith; we lived in an insular world.
The truth is: I was happy as a child in this church.
The truth is: I became an unhappy young adult in this church.
My parents were very open-minded with us children. I do not remember them explicitly encouraging us to read, to explore, to ask questions, but they certainly never discouraged us. My father, himself, asked many questions and was not afraid to challenge the status quo.
As a result, I nurtured a curious mind. I read. I devoured books. I mostly tried to avoid that which might pollute my thinking, but I read everything else that was available.
(I can remember resisting The Great Brain series for years because I knew it made fun of Mormons. I finally succumbed when Tamati (Tom) Hall and his brother, Alan, loaned me the books. They were good Mormons. How could The Great Brain books be bad if recommended by good Mormons?
Skip the next paragraph if you are easily offended.
Curiously, Tom and Alan were also responsible for introducing me to another very non-Mormon book: Mortal Gods. Leaving aside the title (very ironic in this case), this slim science fiction novel was corruptive because it was the first book I'd ever read that contained sexual content. The book, totally unremarkable in every other respect, was responsible for my first masturbatory experience at the age of nine or ten. This was a Big Deal. Even more so than other religions, Mormons frown upon masturbation, and go to great lengths to discourage it.
A Science Fiction Book club mailer was bound inside Mortal Gods. The books I received from joining the club inspired me to start writing my own science-fiction and fantasy stories. Fast forward twenty years to this weblog.
Finally, the Great Brain's younger brother is called J.D. This is a large portion of the etymology of my name; The Great Brain books were popular in Canby when I was in fourth and fifth grades.
Looking back, that evening when Tom and Alan, in all ignorance, loaned me The Great Brain and Mortal Gods had a tremendous impact on my life. Who would have guessed?
(On a purely geeky note -- the date this event occurred could probably be determined because I remember that a version of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was being shown on television. Let's check the Internet Movie Database. Aha! 05 November 1978 -- a Sunday evening, as I suspected. Why can I remember this but not remember to pick up milk on the way home from work?) )
I've never really known why my parents chose to leave the Mormon church. For myself, I may have stopped going if they had not. During junior high and my freshman year in high school, I began to have serious doubts about the church, not because of its theology so much as its all-too-human flaws. People were petty. They gossiped. They stole. They lied. I told myself that no church founded on God would have members that behaved this way.
(To be fair, this behavior can be found in congregations of any religion. At the time, though, it seemed, to me, to be localized to the ward of the church to which I belonged. I took it as a sign of corruption. My adolescent mind longed for purpose, for a righteous God, but could not find it in that spiritual environment.)
We left the Mormon church and turned to Zion Mennonite, the congregation in which my father was raised.
I was fortunate that my peers at Zion were friendly; they went out of their way to include me in their activities. This, in and of itself, seemed to me a radical change from the cliquish nature of the Mormon youth. I felt wanted. I belonged.
The brand of Christianity to which Zion Mennonite adhered in the mid-80s was a marvelous blend of strict Biblical theology and modern liberalism. To be sure, the Zion philosophy would have looked positively conservative to most liberals, but the members seemed generally open to new ideas, were willing to discuss possibilities so long as they were rooted in the teachings of Christ.
Mormonism had been inculcated upon me as a child, but I bought into the Anabaptist philosophy on my own, and with my entire being. These Mennonites were pacifists; they were not evangelical; they were thoughtful and caring; they stressed love: agape and philia; some members even asked questions and discussed religion on an intellectual level. Most of all, Zion felt like home in a way that the Mormon church never did. (In truth, it still feels like home.)
For three years I devoted myself to this brand of Christianity. It was liberating.
I was active in the congregation's Mennonite Youth Fellowship (or MYF). (Today many of my closest companions are from that MYF circle of friends.) I read Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard and other Christian existentialists. I volunteered to lead Bible studies. (My favorite was a friendship-themed Bible study that featured The Velveteen Rabbit as a supplementary text.)
At this time, three disparate aspects of my life converged: my devotion to God, the Mormon emphasis on missionary work that I learned as a child, and the 1986 film The Mission, in which a Jesuit priest attempts to convert South American natives. At the end of high school, I decided that what I wanted most, what God had called me to do, was to become a missionary to those less fortunate than myself.
When I left for college, my intention was to train to become a missionary to South America.
But something happened on the way to that place.
[... to be continued ...]
On this day at foldedspace.org
2005 — Mashed Potatoes with Ketchup In which I eat the breakfast of champions.
2004 — Happy Thanksgiving In which I am thankful for Thanksgiving.
2003 — The Family Business In which working in a family business has its ups and downs.