Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Essence of a Mission

I read two interesting articles today.

The first is this one from NPR. The tacky title notwithstanding, it is actually quite interesting and informative. I deeply appreciated the acknowledgment that Glenn Beck doesn't speak for most mainstream Latter-day Saints. For the most part, the tone and research in the article is good. I think that American reporters are starting to feel more comfortable with the presence of Mormons in public life, and the reality that our belief system in some way must be dealt with.

The comment-ers on this type of story are funny/fascinating/frustrating. Three camps seem to come out on every Mormon-story that runs in a national forum. The first group is completely anti-religion, railing that any person who claims religious-preference hovers between deluded and insane. These people would erase all evidence of religion from public life. (See Communist Russia for such a happy state of affairs.) In an effort to emphasize just how far on the crazy spectrum Mormons are, these people love to pull out difficult and questionable details from events that are over a 100 years old and present them as proof that we cannot be trusted to make good decisions.

The second camp are those Christians (generally of the Evangelical and/or Baptist variety) who feel like it is their duty to further "inform" and readers about the specific details that only their ministers seem to know. I think they also hope to bring a few Mormons into their version of the light along the way. Interestingly, they employ the same techniques as the people in the first group, though their venom is disguised in zealousness.

No less zealous is the third general group: Mormons themselves. The ones who choose to comment are nearly always extremely defensive, and they seek mostly to correct the other comment-ers rather than address topics that were actually in the article. Mormon intellectuals are strangely absent. It isn't that they don't exist, it just seems that they keep more to themselves in that nebulous online Mormon-world dubbed "The Bloggernacle." These blogs range from informative and faithful, to full of contentious former Mormons who just can't quite break from the Church. LDS people have always had difficulty balancing our public persona with easy exclusivity.

Whose idea were these public forums anyway? With no moderator, the discussion is rarely useful or informative, and only the angriest (the ALL CAPS people) and least-informed (the people for whom English grammar seems to be a total enigma) among us. But that is entirely beside the point.

The second article, linked by a single, thoughtful comment-er, was to Bloomberg Newsweek and also spoke about the Mormon Missionary experience and what it can do for people, professionally. The article draws a correlation between the many successful Mormon businessmen (disproportionately high to the less than 2% of the US population we comprise) and the missionary experience. The article is lengthy and says much about the unique leadership experiences we have while growing up and the ease with which LDS people adapt to a corporate hierarchy, because of the Church's top-down structure. Women are nearly entirely overlooked in the article. I bet Whitney might have helped them with that.

And while the writers of each article clearly made an effort to get the facts, and to write as respectfully as they could about things that are, quite frankly, incredibly difficult for "outsiders" to understand, I think they totally missed the point of the mission experience. Totally. It is true that one of the goals of the missionary program is to create future Church leaders, but that process is about changing hearts, not creating corporate clones. There is no mention of understanding and receiving revelation, witnessing miracles, feeling the Spirit, growing up, gaining empathy, intense hours of gospel study . . . the things that truly turn the sincere missionary into a new person. For every successful CEO RM, there are thousands who just re-enter normal life, newly committed, more sensitive, and with a broader picture of the world beyond the one in which they have always known. These anonymous tens of thousands, and the energized converts they find, are the backbone of the Church.

Boy, did these two commentaries miss the mark.

I wrote an essay a couple of weeks ago for a friend. She sent me a subscription to a literary magazine published each quarter called "Granta." It is British, and truthfully pretty out there. Last quarter's issue was called "Alien" and each essay was told by an outsider looking in. My own essay was about my adjustment to Australia, and I'm quite pleased with the result. It is too lengthy to post here (and Blogger can't accommodate my snarky footnotes), but I'm happy to send anyone a copy who wants one. Just send me an e-mail.


heidikins said...

Love this post, I'd read the second article (BusinessWeek) but am off to read the first!


Caitlin said...

Wait, so you were in Granta or you were inspired and wrote the essay after reading that particular issue? I am familiar with Granta although I haven't read it in years. What can I say, I like stuff that's out there!

Science Teacher Mommy said...

NO............. essay was just a RESPONSE to Granta. This quarter's issue was all about feminism and I think I need to revisit the piece about bringing home the bacon. Loved your comments there, too.