“Crap, I’m apologizing for my Mormonism again. Sorry.”

9.28.09 | | 34 comments

elnabaker.

This is not my review of Elna Baker’s new book. This is an accident. I read her first chapter then nine minutes later gave birth to a healthy essay. This sort of thing can happen, even with virginal New York Mormons like Elna. I promise I will do whatever it takes — count to 100 by sevens, whatever — to keep from conceiving an essay per chapter. If all goes well, you will not hear from us again until her book’s estimated due date, October 15.

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The first “chapter” (it’s not called a chapter, yet that’s what I’m calling it) of The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is stage-setting, it’s an introduction — she hasn’t brought out the funny yet (though it’s funny), she hasn’t brought out the memoir yet (though it’s memoiric) — she’s setting the stage, she’s introducing us to her life’s dramatic conventions. She’s world-building.

Yet in these first 22 pages of her new memoir, Elna Baker carves out a rhetorical space for herself by discussing how she has carved space for herself in the real world. She is “A Mormon in New York.”

Imagine a Venn diagram — but not one of those boring static ones we see all the time. This one’s different. At first, the circles nearly overlap, but slowly slowly they move apart until they meet at one point only, the point on which Elna stands. From the title of the “chapter” you may imagine I’m about to have you label the circles “New Yorker” and “Mormon” (as if they were two separate worlds). But don’t imagine that because that would be wrong. Although don’t feel bad! Because, you see, we have two separate Venn diagrams, one for New Yorkers and one for Mormons (as if those two groups were so absolutely separate) (though some might think so).

The two circles in each moving diagram represent “unlimited possibility” and “reality,” and the shift from being nearly overlapping to nearly separate represents the process we go through of moving from one to the other. That state in-between, which the Germans, (joke ahead), call Weltinnerschnitzelrealititz.

(Although the dynamic Venn diagram is mine, you should know that I’m taking most of this stuff [including the German] straight from page seven, when Elna first arrives in New York. She knows nothing and no one: “For another twenty minutes . . . anything was possible: my dorm room and my roommate could be anyone and anything I imagined. But twenty minutes later they’d be whatever they were.” That moment before reality, before, for instance, we read chapter one of a new book, the spine cracking as we open the pages for the first time, the moment of unlimited possibility.)

You can stop imaging now because I’m going to show you my diagram. It’s labeled using terminology that clearly demonstrates what side of the NY/M divide I’m on. (Hint: I’ve never been to the largest city on the east coast.) Behold! how the Gentile Reader and the Saint Reader move from unlimited possibility (which, let’s be honest, means “just like me”) to a single possible person: Elna.

Because you are wise, you will notice that the Saints are the first to be disabused of the notion of “I am just like Elna.”

She begins with talking about her doubts and uncertainties and her dislikes of Mormonism. And not until those are well established does she return to issues of faith and believing and liking, where she is firm but succinct.

So, question begged, why does she structure her opening this way?

A few of her possible thought processes:

  1. Crassly commercial. I can sell a lot more copies to America than to Mormon America. Count and you’ll see. They outnumber us 60 to 1.
  2. Nose thumbery. Screw you crummy Mormons for giving up halfway through the first chapter! I don’t need you anyway!
  3. Saints will be saintly. I can trust my fellow Saints to stick with me through the wobbling, but if I don’t wobble first, other readers will write me off as a wacko and never listen to what I have to say.
  4. Redefinition route. C’mon, people. There must needs opposition in all things. Without doubt there cannot be faith! Mortality’s a process for heaven’s sake! Or, more accurately, for my sake, your sake, our sakes. Let’s not fear doubt. It’s part of our whole religious package!
  5. Religious people aren’t crazy. Well, some are. But not me. Because I see that religion is crazy. Crazy! But it’s like in Catch-22: if you think you’re crazy, you aren’t. Ergo, because I recognize that religion’s crazy, I must not be crazy. QED. Read my book knowing you are in the hands of a sane person.

And it’ll be nice to know she’s sane, because Elna doesn’t skimp on crazy doctrines (becoming a god will have to wait for a later chapter, but here’s an early taste):

. . . having a strong connection with God did not stop me from questioning my faith every ten seconds. Mormonism can sound pretty far-fetched: Joseph Smith digs up golden plates and translates them into a book, The Book of Mormon. This book ends up being a history of the ancestors of the Native Americans, who originated in Jerusalem and believed in Jesus.

When you write it all out like that you can’t help but reconsider. (9)

But when you Elna read closer, you’ll notice that for all her seeming apologies, she never candy coats Mormon doctrine with some tasty intellectualism. She doesn’t follow the above with Welllll, but they were probably only one source of Native American ancestry or Welllll, but you know the Aztecs were looking for a white god so obviously or anything else as apologetic as an apologist. She just says what we think and leaves it alone. She’s inviting the uninitiated to raise their eyebrows and walk away.

My defenses are up because I want her to be like ME I want her to be MY kind of Mormon. And most Mormons will feel the same. But that’s not a reasonable thing for us to feel, and no one will argue that more strenuously than myself. One of the paradoxes of Mormonism is that while we may be rigid and hierarchical, we have exquisite leeway in how we are allowed interpret what it is to be Mormon, what it means to lead a Mormon life. So it’s okay that it’s not possible for Elna to make all of us (or even most of us) happy. (It just feels like she should because she’s doing it on a stage. A literal stage.)

But Elna’s savvy. She recognizes the paradoxes working within her and she’s creating a framework the rest of the book can fit into. If her rhetorical posturing is successful now, she’ll never need to explain the big issues that inform every scene and every line of dialogue through the rest of the book. Because now the reader is Mormon. (Or at least an Elna Mormon.) Now the reader is a New Yorker. (Or at least an Elnayorker.) Because no matter our New Yorker / Mormon / Neither status, we do share something called humanity.

But while, for centuries, nonNew Yorkers have been trained in feeling New Yorkish, nonMormons have very little experience in feeling Mormonish. And so when you meet one, “every question is about whether [Mormons are] polygamist[s].”

Mormons are known for saying no. No sex, no drugs, no alcohol, and no caffeine. NO.

And this whole “saying no” philosophy makes me seem like a very boring person. But I’m not boring because while I say no to certain things (sex, drugs, alcohol), I try to say yes to everything else. I honestly believe there’s a certain power behind the word YES. (18)

Demonstration of YES is where we are now taken and what the themes of this “chapter” is ultimately proven to be. Elna demonstrates through joyous actions the pleasure and happiness to be found in living a life of YES and she makes us want to say YES as well. Her enthusiasm is infectious and whether you are a New Yorker who snorts at Jesus or a Mormon who squeals at dildoes (you’ll have to read the book), by the end of page 22, as you stand in the corner of the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance with Elna and her “too many cookies and a notebook” watching “a thirty-five-year-old man — definitely a virgin — dressed in a duck costume doing the electric slide” you will pray, with her, “God, there has to be another way.”

YES.

34 comments: ““Crap, I’m apologizing for my Mormonism again. Sorry.”

  1. Tyler

    After listening to Elna tell some of her stories (including the one about her, uh, taco costume was it?—on YouTube I think), I have to say that her non-Wasatch Front view of the world (including humor) appeals to me. I may have to get my hands on a copy of the book, too.

  2. Weston Elliott

    I am really getting tired of having to defend my religion. It’s bad enough when it comes from the outside of the church, but when I have to start guarding against other Mormons, that’s just bad.

    Of course, I’m opinionated about this topic to a great degree – I don’t think you have to be “molly mormon” – but you should at least know what you believe and don’t. Poo or get off the pot!

  3. MoJo

    For my part, I stopped apologizing when I was 11 and just owned my weirdness. I didn’t mean to. I was backed into a corner by a youth minister of the Southern Baptist private school I went to. For several hours.

    I’ll admit that lately I’ve been feeling the pinch between the outliers and the orthodox, who both find me a real oddity, but I’m beginning to think that comes from my philosophies other than faith/religion.

  4. Wm Morris

    Just a reminder that there needs to be a culture aspect to comments. This is not the place for advocating which brand/style/mode of Mormonism is the best.

    Also note this: “She begins with talking about her doubts and uncertainties and her dislikes of Mormonism. And not until those are well established does she return to issues of faith and believing and liking, where she is firm but succinct.”

    What’s interesting to me is the idea of doubt as a disarming rhetorical strategy. I don’t use doubt so much as I use the “it’s complicated and different Mormons have different opinions” rhetorical strategy. I wonder how well it works, but I do think it’s worth attempting — the problem is that so many Americans think they have Mormonism and Mormons all figured out so something that busts through their set misconceptions might possibly be effective at complicating matters for some folks.

  5. Theric Jepson Post author

    .

    William—

    I think we avoid talking about doubt because we view doubt as a show of weakness. Yet every testimony has shades of doubt. It wouldn’t mean as much if it didn’t. We believe what we believe and know what we know and that carries us through our doubts and concerns.

    I think the typical Mormon rhetoric of pretending that we don’t doubt is a disservice. I would wager it’s a big part of the reason we lose so many kids from 19 to 21 because they have discovered their doubts and don’t know how to process them.

    Although Elna doesn’t deal with doubt the way I would, she does deal with doubt. And that deserves commendation.

    But she’s not introducing it to a Mormon audience, per se, so I don’t know if anything I just said was at all relevant.

  6. MoJo

    We believe what we believe and know what we know and that carries us through our doubts and concerns.

    IMO, the word “believe” is supplanted by the word “know.” The difference in meaning of the two words is vast and significant. Then when you add in nuance…

    Leaves no room for doubt.

  7. Laura Craner

    As a random note: Th, it’s easy to count by 7’s to 100. The trick is to do it backwards! Sheesh! I guess you’ve never had to have a mental status exam :)

    Elna Baker sounds interesting. . . I’m a little put off, but I think a lot of Mormons feel the way she feels so I think this one is going on the interlibrary loan list. I really like the ideas about doubt being necessary. That’s certainly true to my experience.

  8. Satsuki

    Semantics?

    I think that the word “know” is used far too often in public testimony bearing. As a teenager, I thought that if I didn’t KNOW (“beyond a shadow of a doubt”) that the gospel was true, I was a bad person and undeserving of a place in the church. I wouldn’t be surprised if many other young people feel the same way and leave the church because they simply don’t have that kind of testimony. I agree with Theric that pretending that we don’t all doubt on some level is a disservice to ourselves and to our children.

    Part of the beauty of living a religion is the faith that it requires when you’re not 100% sure. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, all believers CHOOSE to believe. You can choose to believe that God answers prayers in the form of an emotional reaction, or you can choose to believe that such things are psychologically self-induced. You can choose to believe that the positive outcomes of following certain moral guidelines are blessings from God, or you can choose to believe that moral guidelines naturally lead to better life results because they promote self-control and moderation.

    All religious experiences can be explained away somehow. I think that it is perfectly acceptable to doubt, to wonder, and yet believe as best you can, all while knowing that you have chosen to believe simply because you want to. After all, isn’t that part of the point of living — finding out what we will choose to believe?

  9. MoJo

    Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, all believers CHOOSE to believe.

    I agree completely. I very often tell people this is what I choose to believe because I see no better alternatives to choose from.

  10. William Morris

    I’ve heard the whole know vs. believe thing many times (always in favor of using the word believe).

    The problem with the word believe is that is not quite strong enough to capture the experiences with the Holy Spirit. The virtue of the verb believe is, as MoJo, mentions because it entails the idea of choice. However, I think that it somewhat suggests too much the idea that it’s all in one’s head (or worse — heart).

    Perhaps we need a new word that affirms something like “I choose to believe that what I have experienced is of God and came from a source external to myself and in that context I know that what happened really happened because I experienced it in my mind, heart, soul, etc.”

  11. Theric Jepson Post author

    .

    To bring Elna back into the discussion, I just finished a beautiful section called “Pooping Out a Fourth Grader” that ends with a powerfully written spiritual experience. Though she equivocates and wobbles, in the end she knows.

    (For a certain value of “know”)

  12. Katya

    The problem with the word believe is that is not quite strong enough to capture the experiences with the Holy Spirit.

    I agree with this, but, frankly, the things that I know in this fashion are few and far between; belief and faith and practicality have to cover most of the day-to-day stuff. So, when I hear Brother or Sister So-and-so say that they KNOW that the color of the meetinghouse carpeting was chosen by inspiration, I’m skeptical.

    But while, for centuries, nonNew Yorkers have been trained in feeling New Yorkish, nonMormons have very little experience in feeling Mormonish.

    This is a very interesting observation. It may very well be that it will take a very edgy (in the sense of both “unsettling” and “on the edge of a community”) Mormon to make that possible.

  13. Theric Jepson Post author

    .

    This is a very interesting observation. It may very well be that it will take a very edgy (in the sense of both “unsettling” and “on the edge of a community”) Mormon to make that possible.

    It’s a common argument. And it makes some people uncomfortable.

    I’m not convinced. Although my efforts to sell Mormonism straight always fail, I think the audience might not mind so much.

  14. S.P. Bailey

    I admire what Elna is doing. She is an authentic Mormon, she is disarmingly funny, and she is speaking to a broad audience. If you haven’t already, you really should go to her website and listen to her telling a few of her stories.

    As for Th.’s essay, I think this section cuts to the heart of things:

    “She recognizes the paradoxes working within her and she’s creating a framework the rest of the book can fit into. If her rhetorical posturing is successful now, she’ll never need to explain the big issues that inform every scene and every line of dialogue through the rest of the book.”

    I don’t think you have to commit to any of the other possible explanations for the introduction. This is enough: she is laying groundwork for a broad audience to understand both her and her Mormonness.

  15. Theric Jepson Post author

    .

    (Correction: I don’t know how many Mormons you thought there were in America, but I just corrected the ration from 6:1 to 60:1.)

  16. RecessionCone

    I really liked this essay and the comments.

    I, too, have wrestled with “knowing” in Mormon vocabulary. I find it a little counterintuitive that we Mormons should have such difficulty defining the nature of testimony and what it means to believe and know, when Alma 32 is one of our most treasured Mormonisms. And Alma is very explicit that you don’t “know” everything, that building faith is a process, not an event, and that faith matures through experimentation. In my research I do lots of experiments, and I always have to set up experiments with both faith and doubt: faith that my new idea is a good one, doubt that the experiment might fail. Without doubt, you can’t actually experiment, because you can’t define failure (and conversely success). There must needs be opposition to belief in order for that belief to mature. I read Mormon scripture as explicitly Requiring doubt in order to grow faith.

    With all this insight the BofM gives us into the nature of faith, it’s always puzzling to me that as a group we tend to ignore the squishy (but required) parts of faith and focus on “knowing” things, at least in our public pronouncements. I think as Theric points out, this makes crises of faith much more severe, since as a group we’re not given the tools & framework to process doubt constructively, and come to the conclusion (which I share with Satsuki) that ultimately we must choose to nurture our faith in the face of our doubts.

  17. Luisa Perkins

    “One of the paradoxes of Mormonism is that while we may be rigid and hierarchical, we have exquisite leeway in how we are allowed interpret what it is to be Mormon, what it means to lead a Mormon life.”

    I love this essay in general and the above quote in particular.

    And I’m so relieved about that ratio.

  18. Th.

    .

    Yes. It would hard to be misunderstood of a seventh of the country were Mormon. And then where would we be?

  19. Th.

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    Man. I keep getting one character off. Everything I say! Ridiculous. Above, for instance, should have read “if a seventh”; I am ashamed.

    I’m a modern myself and my default is disbelief. Believing takes effort. As I wrote recently, the real question is, do I live my life in a recognizably Christian way? Does my life bring forth fruit it would otherwise lack? Is there any discernible difference between me and one who believeth not?

    That’s a worthwhile test, I think, to consider on a personal basic.

  20. Th.

    .

    Hey. This post is only about the first chapter.

    (But I will say I’m halfway through the book now and it only gets better.)

  21. Theric Jepson Post author

    .

    Crap, I’m apologizing for my bad typing again. Sorry.

    I just noticed I committed the worst of all possible sins. The “crazy doctrines” quote was missing a word. If it didn’t make sense before, please reread.

    Sheez. I hate myself.

    (Feel free to hate me also, but send it to me personally; don’t post it here.)

  22. Wm Morris

    Well, since hate comes from fear, we’d have to fear you to hate you, Theric. And I just don’t see that happening.

  23. Jonathan Langford

    Chiming in late as usual…

    A good conversation. I particularly like RecessionCone’s comment (#19). “Ultimately we must choose to nurture our faith in the face of our doubts.” Well said!

    I think there’s value in avoiding the phrases “I know” or “I believe” in favor of more direct expressions of experience when that’s possible. E.g.: “I have experienced answers to prayers. I have felt the Holy Ghost giving me comfort. My life is richer for having the gospel in it. I have felt the witness of the Spirit.” Ultimately, phrasing it that way leaves it up to the reader/listener to decide whether to agree with my interpretation, or politely believe that I must simply be fooling myself.

  24. William Morris

    I agree. I don’t bear my testimony often, but when I do it’s often in simple declarative statements and expressions of personal, subjective experience.

  25. Th.

    .

    If your testimony was an AP paper I would take my pen and mark out all the “I believe”s and “I think”s and “I know”s etc. And then I would yell (comically), “I don’t CARE what you believe! I just want to know what IS!”

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