Defending the Faith: Are Mormons spared from reality? Hardly

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Foliage and the Salt Lake Temple on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Ravell Call, Church News

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A common claim during this "Mormon Moment," in opinion columns and elsewhere, is that Mormons live in a bubble. Most specifically, Mormonism is said to have isolated a certain current presidential candidate from "real life" (during his missionary service, for example).

So I've been reflecting upon my own experience, and on how my faith has — or hasn't — insulated me from the Real World.

Like most contemporary Latter-day Saints, I grew up outside of Utah. I had no Mormon teachers in school and my friends were all Catholics, Protestants or agnostics; the youth culture of late 1960s California was anything but church-approved.

I served a mission. Like other missionaries, my equally young companion and I went door to door on our own, never knowing what we would encounter.

Serving in German-speaking Switzerland, I encountered friendly atheists, militant Evangelical critics, drunks, verbal abuse, devout Catholics, contemptuous secularists, complacent materialists, frank sensualists and hostile policemen. One man brandished a pistol just six inches from my nose. ("My husband isn't very enthused," his embarrassed wife explained.) Late one night, while the mission president was away, a would-be suicide called mission headquarters. I spent roughly four hours persuading her not to kill herself. I'd just turned 21.

But Switzerland was downright comfortable compared to many places where young missionaries serve. Seeing the open sewers near a nephew's last mission apartment, his mother exclaimed, "But you never mentioned this in your letters!" "You think I'm crazy?" he replied. "I didn't want you trying to bring me home."

Missionary service seems an odd method for keeping impressionable young Mormons within a protective bubble.

So does life in a typical Mormon congregation. Many of the people I've worshipped with might have been my friends anyway, even without the church. Many wouldn't have. And some have been quite irritating. (I probably exasperated them, too.) Nonetheless, we've learned to worship and to serve together.

Church service just doesn't seem a very good instrument for sparing Mormons from exposure to reality.

During my tenure as a bishop, for instance, I worked with many congregants leading good, healthy, successful lives. But I often also had to deal, one on one, with people suffering the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, emotional problems, dysfunctional families, poverty, various chronic limitations, joblessness and despair. I expect that everybody who has been asked to serve in such positions — and this includes that current presidential candidate — has had comparable experiences.

Furthermore, Latter-day Saints are no more strangers to "the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" than are non-Mormons. We get sick. We die. We lose loved ones. We're not magically immune to the effects of substance abuse, immorality, emotional challenges, job loss and dissolving families.

We can't live in a bubble. It's impossible.

Moreover, the church constantly sends us out — out of ourselves and, often, far out of our comfort zones — as home teachers and visiting teachers, as young missionaries and senior missionaries, as bishops, as employment-service volunteers and addiction counselors.

Elderly middle-class American couples sent from suburbia to serve in sub-Saharan Africa or India are, quite obviously, not living in a bubble.

"God," wrote Luke in Acts 10:38, "anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him."

And we seek — however imperfectly — to be like him.

Some try to live without emotional risk. "I've built walls," say Paul Simon's familiar lyrics:

A fortress deep and mighty,

That none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.

It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.

I am a rock,

I am an island.

Dont talk of love,

But I've heard the words before; If I never loved I never would have cried . . .

I have my books

And my poetry to protect me;

I am shielded in my armor,

Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.

I touch no one and no one touches me.

I am a rock,

I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;

And an island never cries.

But a committed Latter-day Saint cant live that way. We believe in the shockingly vulnerable God of Moses 7, who, though exalted and inexpressibly powerful, weeps for his children. Their suffering grieves and hurts him because he cares about them. Hes not an unmoved Mover. And, however inadequately, we try to be like him.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of Mormon ScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.

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