booknotes: book of mormon girl

I rarely have the time these days to invest in comment threads on blogs, though I skim hundreds of RSS-scraped posts every day via Google Reader. Yet over the past few months, I've spent quite a bit of time over at the Family Scholars blog, engaging with socially conservative bloggers and commenters about issues such marriage equality and queer family formation.

I actually find the practice almost ... soothing.

Hanna, meanwhile, is mystified about my motivations, since just having me describe some of the interactions I have there ramps up her anxiety and stress levels to uncomfortable proportions. And I find I don't have very articulate reasons for why I find arguing with the opposition -- bearing witness, speaking up for my point of view -- to be an almost meditative practice.

Except that, growing up and going to college where I did, it's what I've had to do by default most of my life. So it's what feels comfortable, feels familiar: standing on the edges knocking politely on the door to remind those on the inside (of the mainstream culture, church, school, whatever) that I'm still here.

I don't necessarily want to be let in? It's a nice world, in many ways, where I am out here. I've always been a fan of fresh air and expansive horizons.

But I don't want them to forget that I'm out here.

Another aspect of my insistence on being a complicating presence came home to me while I was reading Joanna Brooks' Book of Mormon Girl (Free Press, 2012) this past week. It had been on my radar for awhile, but what prompted me to read it was an email from a friend of mine, a former member of the LDS church, who has walked away from the faith in his adulthood for a variety of reasons not the least of which is the fact that he's gay and the Mormon church is not all that cool -- at least at an institutional level -- with queerness. He'd found the book a disorienting read, he reported to me, because while he's quit the church entirely Brooks continues to struggle mightily with her inherited faith and childhood experience, and the betrayal of the community she once felt safe within when she stepped outside the bounds of orthodoxy (as an outspoken Mormon feminist, queer ally married to a Jewish man). Why did she continue to fight to belong in a church that clearly pushed her away, hard, with both hands?

It's a stubbornness I recognize, though I wasn't actually raised in the church (Mormon or otherwise). The faith of my heritage was loosely Protestant, my father the son of a New Testament theologian, my mother the mostly unchurched daughter of a Christian Scientist and disbelieving Scotch Presbyterian. In my adolescence, we attended a liberal Dutch protestant church (a denomination in the Reformed Church in America) for a handful of years where I argued passionately with Conservative youth leaders from my position as a nascent feminist and tried to envision the Church as a pathway to effectively channel my welling passion for social justice.

Then I went to college and discovered feminist theology which offered (though I didn't have these words at the time) a way of thought and action that was both intersectional and spiritual: a faith of uncompromising social justice, nonviolent action, solidarity, and equality: each and every one of us is a child of God. Full worthy to be loved and capable of loving.

It's a theology that I, unchurched though I am, continue to strive for in the spiritual practice of daily living.

And it felt like a theology that many religious folk around me were uninterested in pursuing.

I've said before, and I'll repeat it here, that I found my Christianity and left the church in more or less the same breath.

I saw what Christianity could be and is, at its best and brightest, and in my adolescent impatience had no time for those preoccupied with orthodoxy at the expense of lovingkindness. Lacking the deep roots of religious history, community, family, and faith that ties women like Joanna Brooks to the church -- and I know many of them, ardent feminist thinkers, queers, social justice workers, all fighting past the burnout to build a Church I would be proud to call mine -- I up and quit and walked away.

But in part because of the women (and I know there are men, too, but it's the women I think of in these moments, the ones who stand up and refuse not to be counted) I keep circling back. I keep tapping on the door, poking my head in, and reminding folks that my life, too, is relevant to the conversation: You're talking about the welfare state? I might be financially secure right now, but I've had state-subsidized healthcare. You're talking about male headship? Let me talk to you about sex, gender, and humanity. You're talking about same-sex marriage? Let me introduce you to my wife, our two cats, and quotidian details of our lives.You're talking about war? Let's talk about the history of religious nonviolence.

My mother has always said that she won't join any church that constructs an "us" from which a "them" is excluded, kept at arms length, on the outside. Which is why, to this day, she remains unbaptized (and why none of us children were baptized), and certainly informs my own decision not to seek church membership.

But I keep tapping at the door. I keep having the conversations. I want to bear witness (imperfect, broken, human, though I am) to the fact that we could do better and that I know there are those working mightily within the Church, as well as without, to make it so.

Hmm. The plan was to write a book review, but clearly I had other things to say. Still: Book of Mormon Girl is sweet, funny, heartbreaking, thoughtful, and passionate. As a queer American I found the chapter on Proposition 8 particularly painful to read; as a woman who came of age about 5-10 years after Brooks, I found her chapter on feminism and faith, and the trauma of the LDS purges in the 90s (when the hierarchy excommunicated a number of liberal intellectuals and activists, and declared feminists, gays, and lesbians the "enemy") to be particularly resonant. As an historian with an interest in the personal journeys of those who grow up in fundamentalist, evangelical circles, Brooks' narrative was of scholarly interest to me as well. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to think more deeply about what it means to be a politically and socially progressive person in the context of a reactionary religion.

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