Monday, August 9, 2010

Scarlett Johansson

One of the hardest parts of being at BYU was finding religion classes that I could tolerate. There were a ridiculous number of religion credits required for graduation--Book of Mormon I, and II, Old and New Testament, Doctrine and Covenants I and II, and a number of other miscellaneous credits to top it off. While this might sound like torture, some of these turned out to be great classes taught by good, honest and thoughtful professors. A few of these professors even became people I could confide in, and speak openly with about my lack of faith.

But not all religion classes were taught by open minded experts. Professors from other fields besides religious studies rotate to teach classes like Book of Mormon because of high demand. When this was the case, the class often felt more like a Mormon Sunday school class than a college course. You'd have the Racketball 101 instructor preparing the night before class to teach about Jesus visiting the Native Americans.

In one such class, the Professor liked to open the class up for testimony and missionary experience sharing time. One afternoon a young male student raised his hand and told about how the week before he had been hired to pick up celebrities at the Salt Lake airport and to take them to Sundance for the annual Sundance Film Festival. It just so happens that his celebrity was Scarlett Johansson. So, as they were driving around Ms. Johansson began asking about the Mormons. This young student saw her questions not as a general curiosity, but rather as genuine interest in the gospel and its saving principles.

He answered her questions, but didn't really have the balls to fully testify to her. He spent the next few days praying about how to talk to Ms. Johansson about the church. He ended up writing his testimony on the inside cover of a copy of the Book of Mormon. He went to pick up Scarlett at the end of the festival, and before dropping her off at the airport he gave her the book, and told her to read it and pray about whether it was true.

He finished off his story by sharing his testimony with the class, and telling us all how thankful he was that Ms. Johansson was receptive to the gospel message.

Personally I think my classmate might have been misreading the situation a little bit. Mormons are prone to do this. As missionaries we would practically high five when a busy house wife would rattle off "Come back later, I'm busy!" before slamming the door in our faces. We were immune to the door slam, all we heard was the "Come back later." Much to the shagrin of said house wife we would in fact come back, several times a week if we had to, because damn it, she wanted us to!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mormons Make Terrific Skeptics

I remember early in my faith crisis I did some reading about the Book of Abraham. For those who aren't familiar, the Mormon cannon includes two books--the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses--that Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from some ancient papyri. The papyri was purchased from a man named Michael Chandler in 1835. Joseph proceeded to translate the text, by the power and authority of God, which contained the writing of Abraham and Moses.

As it turns out, however, the papyri (which resurfaced in a Chicago museum in 1968), have nothing to do with either of these Old Testament prophets. You can't even really say that Joseph's translation was poor, because it wasn't really a translation at all.

I had heard whispers of this on my mission from a missionary whose father had left the church. I asked my mission president about it, and he told me not to worry, that scholars at BYU had studied this out and there was no reason to worry about it.

However, once I was home and had access to things like, oh, I don't know . . . the internet, it became abundantly clear that this was in fact a problem. I tried talking to my father about this particular issue. He has been a true believer ever since his mission days. I explained that since the time of Joseph's "translation," scholars had used the Rosetta Stone to learn Egyptian, and that the actual Egyptian does not match up with the what we find in the Books of Abraham and Moses.

My Dad, for a moment, suddenly became a pure skeptic.

"Well, how do you know you can trust these guys, I mean, you don't know where they came from or what their motives are."

"Dad, they're college professors."

"Well where did this 'Rosetta Stone' come from? I mean, how do you know that's not fake?"

"Uuuuuh . . . "

My father had lived the last forty-plus years without applying a single critical thought to his religion. Have food storage? Ok! Pay tithing? Sure thing! Accept this position or that? No problem! There was no room for doubt or questions in his mind. But when it comes to things that cast a shadow of doubt on his world of faith, suddenly there are questions to be asked, motives to be questioned.

My Dad and I argued for a bit. I was still trying to rescue my testimony at the time, and I was genuinely hoping for some answers to these questions. He grew tired eventually, however, and finally admitted, "Son, I'm getting to old to give a crap about this stuff. I have a testimony, and I'll believe until I die."

I haven't talked to my Dad about the Church since.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Who I'm Not

Mormons have a funny way of dealing with "apostates" like me. It would be hard to continue faithfully in the church if all around you there were members leaving for rational, or even spiritual reasons. So the church and its members engage in widespread apostate defamation, this way the active members don't have to wrestle with the possibility that they're living a lie. Those who leave the church are usually bunched into one of the following categories:

They just couldn't handle it--These former members simply couldn't handle living a righteous life. Maybe they tried for awhile, but in the end the call of booze, whores, and all kinds of miscellaneous debauchery were simply too much to resist. Stories of these members are common place at church, and they usually go something like this:

"I saw Jim the other day at the grocery store. *voice grows somber* He had a six pack of beer in his shopping cart."

As the story goes, Jim's carnal desire to drink beer was so strong that it caused him to lose his testimony and ultimately . . . the spirit. Now Jim is seen at grocery stores buying hard drinks, which he no doubt consumes alone in his basement, the place where he has spent most of his time since becoming a degenerate drunkard. Mormons will never wonder if Jim stopped believing in the church before he started drinking. They'll assume that it was the sweet alcohol-y nectar that led Jim astray.

They never really believed--This is a group that I've often found myself being pinned to. When these folks stop going to church, the assumption is that they were never really converted in the first place. Afterall, if they had a "real" testimony there's no way they would ever leave the church, right? People will say that these former-members "borrowed" the testimony of friends and family for too long without ever developing their own. These people simply left too soon. If they'd hung around a while longer, and just kept praying about it, certainly the testimony they never had would have come.

They were offended--Mormons like to say that the Gospel is perfect, but the people who live it aren't(This statement is only 1/2 true)! When these people leave the church, it is assumed that it is because they've been hurt or offended by a fellow member. This is never viewed as a legitimate reason for inactivity, and these members are often talked about as simply "just not getting it."

None of these groups really applied to me. I started at BYU in 2004, fresh off a mission, with a strong testimony to match. I had always lived and believed in the gospel--no shortcuts. I didn't drink, smoke, have sex, or even shop on Sundays. My testimony was real, and I enjoyed living the gospel.

My faith crisis was not a result of being offended, or the desire to whore it up in Provo. My faith crisis was just that--a crisis. There were tears, desperate prayers, and hours spent in the temple, meditating and hoping that it was all true. The core of this struggle took place years ago, but the pain and agony I went through still feels fresh when I write about it.

One of the hardest parts of leaving the church is knowing that I gave it my all, yet I continue to be thrown into a category of apostate losers. I won't be remembered by friends and family as the guy who, after months of prayerful tears could not bring himself to believe anymore. Instead I'll be remembered as the guy who never believed in the first place, the guy who was deceived by "some book," or the guy who just couldn't handle living the commandments.

I'm tired of letting other people dictate my story.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Not-First First Post

I've been blogging for a long time. My parents had AOL dial-up when I was in middle school (we're talking '95-'97ish), and I had my own website even way back then. It was mostly a collection of Letterman Top-Ten lists, funny pictures that I'd gathered, and cryptic messages about the girls I liked at school. What can I say, I've always been at the cutting edge of all things dorky.

Then I guess you know the story. Blogging went on to become an actual thing that actual people do. Suddenly everyone is a writer. I rode that wave for a long time, and maintained several blogs where I'd talk about whatever project I was working on, or just the randomness of my life at that time. But I always blogged with my true identity, even going back to my AOL days. I posted pictures, names, stories, etc. Friends and family knew about my blog, and would visit frequently. It was not always easy because shortly after returning from my Mormon mission I "lost my testimony" (that's Mormon-speak for "stopped believing"), and became in many ways a disappointment in the eyes of my family and friends.

So I wrote carefully and deliberately. Watched my language. Omitted certain story lines. I tried my best to be reverent in order to avoid offending anyone. Eventually my writing slowed to a crawl, and then stopped all together. I like writing, and have always enjoyed blogging, but I went through about a two year writers block where I couldn't think of anything to say.

I was recently thinking about my time at BYU, and how I have a kind of unique perspective of the school, Mormonism, and life in general. What's sad isn't so much that I've been unable to share that perspective, but that I'm beginning to forget the details myself. So I've started a new blog, this time anonymous, in order to be able to express myself freely, to share my experience as an atheist at BYU, and hopefully to help those who went or are going through a similar experience. Enjoy!