“Mormons are not The Borg.” That’s what Matthew Bowman answered (author of the new book The Mormon People) when I asked him a couple of weeks ago what was the most common misperception about Mormons. I was at a talk/signing for his new book at the plucky independent bookstore in Arlington/Falls Church: One More Page Books. (This book store in only one year has become the hub of all events literary in Northern Virginia in part because of the decline and fall of almost all the other bookstores in the region but also on account of the great attitude and hard work of the staff.)
I’ve been hesitant to write about my impressions of the book signing lest I come across as mean-spirited, snarky and/or somehow offend my Mormon friends and colleagues. But I keep thinking about the experience, largely because I do not understand the Mormon phenomena in America. (I think a lot about what I do not understand. Are there people who only think a lot about what they do understand?) Last night I was watching this excellent (but more than an hour-long) interview of Brian Dawson, an ex-Mormon who is star and producer of the Mr. Deity video podcast series. (If you haven’t seen these they are a real treat: funny and yet sophisticated inquiry into what the God stories really mean. It tackles all the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. I promise.)
Back to the greatest misperception about Mormons. (Now I consider this my favorite trick question–the one you ask when you really, really want to know the truth. So for example, if I’m interviewing someone for a job, I often use it when I want to really find out someone’s greatest weakness. If you ask someone that question in an interview, they’ll undoubtedly answer with a weakness that is invariably a strength: I work too hard is popular. But if you ask someone what the most common misperception is about them, they’ll often say something like: Well, that I’m not really a people person. BINGO!) Generally speaking, there is no such thing as a misperception.
So when I asked Dr. Bowman to volunteer the greatest misperception about Mormons first he said he didn’t know what to say because there were so many. But then he quickly offered that the Mormons were seen as The Borg. Which wasn’t at all the case.
At that moment I looked around the rather small space of One More Page Books, which was filled with, by their count, 85 people–the largest turnout they’d ever had for a book talk/signing. I had arrived early that evening because Author Whisperer @TNebeker had told me they were expecting a large turnout. Nevertheless at about ten minutes till seven, there were maybe 4 people waiting for the talk, including the author. In the next 8 minutes, the other 81 appeared almost instantaneously, like…well…The Borg. The crowd represented all age groups, from teenagers to the author’s uncle but as best as I could tell I was the only non-Mormon in the room.
What struck me right away about the group, what has always struck me when I’m around Mormons, is how positive they are. I’m one of the I believe growing legion of non-practicing Catholics, and I can tell you from experience that when Catholics are together in a large group they cannot exactly be described as positive and cheerful. (Bowman by the way thought the Mormon and Catholic religions had many similarities, more so than Mormons and Protestants.) But the Mormons were uniformly pleased one of their own had written this important book that was being seriously reviewed. Their questions reflected their pride in their religion and culture, and gentle in-jokes. Afterwards several of the Mormon missionaries (I could tell because they were wearing badges) approached me to ask if I wanted more information about the Mormon church or to further elaborate on answers to my other questions. (Q: Why do Mormons appear to be so prosperous? A: If that’s true, it’s because, unlike members of other religions Mormons become more religious as they become wealthier!!!) But when I told them that I wasn’t interested and wasn’t really a believer, they couldn’t have been kinder or more generous. (Unlike many other Christian evangelicals I’ve experienced who react to a demurral much like the Toro reacts to the Red Cape.)
So I left the event more puzzled than when I entered. Many of the questions from Bowman’s Mormon audience reflected what appeared to be real inner spiritual experiences. (Did you feel the hand of the Divinity while you were writing?) I left the event with the same respect for the Mormons I’ve always had. Considerable.
And yet when I listened to the interview with Brian Dawson, the former Mormon now Atheist who speaks quite eloquently about his spiritual journey, I’m again confronted with what I consider to be the profound mysteries of the Mormon Church. The Book of Mormon ‘s purported historical accounts of the pre-Columbian civilizations and conditions of North America have now, to the satisfaction of many, been disproven. (Most recently, DNA tests show no trace of semitic-linked genes in indigenous North American populations.) The theology, which is complex and still developing, posits a pre-life and after-life that are significantly different from that of most other monotheistic religions. (In my admittedly brief scan of Mormon apologetics prior to writing this, I was struck by their argument that critics must remember Mormonism is still a young religion, less than 200 years old. After all, Islam certainly did not have its act together in the 8th century. The comparison was valid…and surprising.)
By the way, the Brian Dawson interview I’ve linked to is part of the Mormon Stories podcasts. These interviews feature prominent Mormons talking about their faith. From what I could tell all the others interviewed were true believers. I can’t imagine any other denomination that would allow a non-believer more than an hour of quality air-time to express his opinions. Mormons strike me always as very secure in what they believe.
My puzzlement over the Mormon religion also affects my views about Mitt Romney. (Bowman had heard that John Huntsman is actually a non-practicing Mormon,) Romney famously describes himself as a man of data. And yet he says he is proud of his Mormon faith, which implies he accepts the founding documents of the Church, which appear to me to be data-free. What can I conclude from this? Either he is not really the empiricist that he claims to be (i.e. he really believes) or he is in fact somewhat of a religious hypocrite.
Well, I’ve rambled enough. I’ve been thinking about the Mormon religion for almost 40 years now. (I went to high school in West Texas where we were always fending off their ministries.)
I’m afraid I have yet to achieve clarity.