Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Multicultural Surprise! Jack B. Worthy's "The Mormon Cult"

A Chinese, born in China with a dark skin, and with all the handicaps of that race seems to have little opportunity. But think of the mercy of God to Chinese people who are willing to accept the gospel. In spite of whatever they might have done in the pre-existence to justify being born over there as Chinamen, if they now, in this life accept the gospel and live it the rest of their lives they can have the Priesthood, go to the temple and receive endowments and sealings, and that means they can have exaltation.

-- (Apostle) Elder Mark E. Petersen, in a talk given at Brigham Young University (BYU) on August 27, 1954

The Mormon mission experience is a unique and remarkable thing. If you send single young adults to a foreign country to learn the language and culture, there's a danger they'll assimilate, internalize the new country's values and culture, and stay there. Yet, the LDS church has a pretty strong track record of getting missionaries (or mishies, as I like to call them) to learn a foreign language/culture just enough to get around easily but not so much that the new country becomes "home."

How do they do it? Well, I've just read an interesting new missionary memoir that goes a long way towards explaining how it works. From a faithful LDS persepctive, Jack B. Worthy's mission was a "failed" one -- not only did he leave the church at the end, but he essentially went on to choose his mission country (Hong Kong) over his Mormon American culture. Naturally this gives us some contrasting points to show how those missions that do work work.

The Mark E. Petersen quote above (which I read in Jack's book) isn't just shockingly racist. It also betrays the common human failing of being unable to perceive the people of another culture as being just people. As I discussed in Is religion the problem? it's weird, but while you naturally see that your own community is full of all different types of people, it's nearly impossible to avoid mentally flattening different races and nationalities into cartoon caricatures. Even educated people who know intellectually that foreign societies have the full spectrum of human qualities still have a difficult time feeling on a gut-level "they're more like us than they are different." Obviously Chinese people don't see themselves as a handicapped race, with little opportunity, who had the misfortune of "being born over there as Chinamen." In fact, I'll bet there are plenty of Chinese people who pity Americans for being "born over there" (in the U.S.), into a culture that many Chinese probably view as pitifully limited and obscure. Jack's memoir is a positive and encouraging tale of breaking through the haze of a simple, provincial perspective and getting to the point of seeing "just people, like us" in the faraway city of Hong Kong. The similarities began to stand out so much more than the differences that he'd originally called his memoir "Confucius Was a Mormon Pioneer."

Like many missionaries, Jack was sorely disheartened by the vast gulf separating faith-promoting mission expectations from the mission reality that he saw around him. The critical point that pushed him over the edge into apostasy, though, was the humiliation of being disfellowshipped and sent home in shame after he had sex with a local girl. Jack describes how returned-missionaries are put in a position where they're socially required to tell stories from their missions that are as faith-promoting as possible, and how this experience affects their own memories of their experiences, making the faith-shaking parts fade and the faith-building parts grow by comparison. Of course, humans naturally frame their memories to emphasize how they got where they are today, so -- since Jack's mission ended badly -- his memories focus on his growing doubts and unease (even though he didn't fully stop believing in Mormonism until a decade later). In the book, he gives some interesting speculation about where he'd be today, and what his own mission memories would be like if he hadn't made that fateful decision to sneak out with a girl to the upper deck of an anonymous boat docked at the pier and have sex under the stars.

Considering Jack's happy, secular life with a bi-cultural family in Hong Kong today, I'd say this is an encouraging story of taking opportunities to learn and of overcoming adversity (where adversity, here, is indoctrination and the traumatic experience of getting excommunicated shortly after his mission). I particularly liked the end where he talked about getting a job doing the stock role of "the white guy" for Hong Kong television: "In one movie, I was a member of a group of Eastern European terrorists who had come to Hong Kong and taken an entire high school hostage. Of course the Hong Kong police force saved the day, and I ended up fighting to the finish alongside my terrorist friends." That sounded like such a fun job that remarked to my (French) husband that it almost makes me wish I'd chosen to learn Chinese instead of French! Jack closes with some fascinating comparisons between Chinese culture and Mormon culture (including some rituals and beliefs about the dead, from his own new extended family), and with a message of understanding:

In 470 B.C., only nine years after Confucius died, a rival philosopher named Mozi was born. Mozi, a contemporary of Socrates, taught universal love. He believed that the same degree of good that one wishes for one’s own parents or children should also be wished for the parents and children of others. He also taught that the identification one has with one’s own community and nation should be extended to all communities and nations.

So the last remaining elephant in the room of this book review is why did he name a positive story of cross-cultural understanding "The Mormon Cult"?

I emailed the author to figure this out, and he told me the following:

I consider all religions to be cults, as well as many other belief systems that are not labeled as religions, e.g., Herbalife and patriotism. Are they qualitatively different or just quantitatively different? I guess it depends on how you define cult, which is not easy. To keep it simple, we could say there is only a quantitative difference. The question then becomes, Where does the LDS Church lie on the continuum of cultishness? That's not an easy question to answer. I think it's safe to say that there are religions that are much worse, and there are many that are not nearly as bad. And within each religion, even, there are many levels. I grew up in Nebraska, which was probably much different from growing up in a small town in Utah.

That makes sense to me, and fits quite well with the theme and conclusions at the end of the book. However, I felt like that point didn't come through at all in the first section of the book, which explains in detail how Mormon indoctrination works (eg. training small kids to "bear their testimonies", telling people with doubts to "fake it till you make it" since saying you know X encourages you to convince yourself that you really do know it). I don't want to belabor this point too much because we've just gotten done discussing it in detail over on MSP here, but the problem is that people aren't going to assume you mean to place Mormonism on a "continuum of cultishness" if you don't say so and you don't call anyone but Mormons a cult. These guys, for example, absolutely don't mean some sort of nuanced "within each religion, even, there are many levels" when they call Mormonism a cult.

But, in the end, the publisher picked the title The Mormon Cult, and the (potentially even better book) Confucius Was a Mormon Pioneer got shelved. The tragic reality is that there's a real market for faith-promoting Mormon books and a lesser market for books proving that Mormonism is bad and wrong -- but essentially no (paying?) market for heart-warming, positive stories about being raised religious and finding your own way to skepticism.



Scot said...

Thanks for the review.

"The tragic reality is that there's a real market for faith-promoting Mormon books and a lesser market for books proving that Mormonism is bad and wrong -- but essentially no (paying?) market for heart-warming, positive stories about being raised religious and finding your own way to skepticism."

I wonder if the problem isn't one of gradients and symmetry. Conversion stories and deep certainty are dramatic, going into or out of a faith. Being an ardent supporter or debunker of a faith will lead to provocative content. But a non-confrontational path to skepticism seems to come off as meandering until you get lost :-) to a lot of people, and what is epistemological discipline can come off as confusion. You must talk in "seems" and "appears", while the other person KNOWS in the very core something is the word of God or an evil cult; I think the human mind just enjoys reading about the latter more. God knows I'll still try to proselytize for skepticism though ;-).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Scot!!!

Good point. This sort of enlightenment somehow doesn't make quite as dramatic or passionate a story...

Christopher Smith said...

Great review, chanson! Made me really want to read the book! (An to learn more about Mozi!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review; looks like a fascinating book. The indoctrination steps you cited are pretty much what happens in evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, too. That's no surprise, of course. because they work.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Chris!!!

I'm tempted to do some follow-up reading on Mozi, too.

Hey Chaplain!!!

Exactly. I think the discussion of Mormon indoctrination in the book would have benefitted from some comparison/contrast with other types of indoctrination, and with the mechanisms of education and socialization in general. Perhaps Mormon indoctrination is unusual or exceptional in some way, but it's hard to tell if it's not presented in context.

Anonymous said...





C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Peter!!!

Since I can't read Chinese, I'm just going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you've written something clever and relevant. ;^)