Monday, January 5, 2015

strictly missionary.

Visiting my brother-in-law in Recent Subdivision, WA leaves me a little bit adrift. The pre-teen boys are playing Minecraft, of course, and the other adults play games and seem mostly content to stay in, but I have to leave the house or I will go insane. So every day I go to the coffee shop.

Recent Subdivision gets the epithet because unlike most subdivisions, this was not actually designed to mimic Dante's conception of Limbo. It's quite nice if you like your house to be beige, taupe, gray, or slate blue, or a mute pine green, if you're particularly racy. There's a small main street with an adorable library and a mediocre diner and a Verizon store and the coffee shop. There are a couple dozen miles of beautiful Pacific Northwest trails spread throughout generously wide greenways. It's quite walkable, and the roads are thoughtfully laid out to prevent fast traffic, which means it's easy for me to get lost. If it weren't for Google Maps on my iPhone, I might not have returned from that first excursion.

Yesterday I took a different route in the general direction of coffee, and as I approached the mini-downtown and started looking for a way in, there was a call from across the street.
"Good morning, sir!"
I kept walking.
I turned around and saw two guys, maybe 20 years old, identically dressed in black suits and trenchcoats, name tags and briefcases. I know that uniform!
"Good morning. Mormons?"
"Heh, yes. How are you doing today?"
I thought about ditching them, but that was going to be a pain: evangelists always peacefully and quickly retreat from my doorstep, for some reason, but on the street they won't take the hint any more than schizophrenic homeless people. I sympathize. If they gave up easily, they wouldn't be doing their job. So I let them catch up and decided to let my plans be changed, figuring that I've never actually talked to Mormons about Mormonism, and it could be almost as interesting as reading my novel.
"Well, I'm headed to the coffee shop, but you guys are welcome to tag along and chat. You don't want coffee, obviously, but they have other stuff."
Now, the only active Mormon I've spent much time with is a former co-worker, who is brilliant, curious, widely-read, and grew up outside L.A. My bar may be set wrong. I talked about my co-worker spending his missionary years in Sweden, and how they drew the long straw in not being sent somewhere particularly far off. They asked if I had a faith of my own, and I said "Zen Buddhist."
"You must learn a lot about Buddhism in the Middle East."
No. No, you don't.

I kept returning to them and their experience; unsurprisingly, they've clearly had a bit of practice re-focusing the conversation on how reading the Book of Mormon brings you closer to God.

I did manage to get us a little far afield, because I think they get thrown by the idea of spirituality without a deity, so we chatted for a while about meaning and love and connection. At one point I mentioned theodicy, the question of why God allows evil in the world; most people don't know the word, but I'd expect studied Christians to at least know the concept (or have considered the question).
"Do you guys study basic Christian theology? Augustine, Aquinas, all that?"
"No...not really."
"Augustine...why does that sound familiar?"
"He's one of the foundations of Western civilization."
"Yeah, I think maybe...I studied humanities before my mission, so I think I might have read something by him."
Oooookay then.

I had to get back to the house, which made ending the conversation easy. They were nice kids, but I was pretty surprised at how ignorant they were: the LDS Church tagline (which they repeated) is that the Book of Mormon is a completion of Christianity, but as far as they knew, it is Christianity.

I was super nice, I thought. I did a lot of work to keep the conversation going, because there are a whole lot of awkward questions you can about about Mormonism:
  • Why does the story of Joseph Smith's revelation sound like any number of new religions and cults that have appeared in the past 300 years?
  • Why would I believe this one over the others? How do you know there weren't other prophets after him?
  • This is, prima facie, a little odd.
 And my favorites, if those are too crass:
  • Why did God's prophets in North America have to be white?
  • Doesn't it seem even a little odd to you that the President of the Church, God's living prophet on earth, just happened to have revelations about polygamy and racial discrimination (really, about the fundamental worth of black people) not long after political circumstances required them?
I learned a lot, though. At one point they said "You can't change someone's mind," and I said "What do you guys do all day?". But they really don't view themselves as being in the business of persuasion, as though this were debate club and Mormonism were like your opinion on cap-and-trade schemes. They speak from a position of Mormonism being self-evident if you just open your heart and do the reading; they are "inviting" people to join the awesomeness.

The only religion I've ever seen that was even close to self-evident was Zen. And I only thought I understood it.

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