So for a few months now, I’ve been following this blog:
The author is Joanna Brooks, a graduate of BYU and UCLA who is currently a professor of literature at SDSU. She styles herself as an unorthodox Mormon with imperfect but friendly answers to questions about our culture and religion, ranging from polygamy to Christmas traditions. Although I disagree with plenty of her opinions, there are two reasons I read what she posts:
First, she talks openly about her struggles with the church and with Mormon culture as a whole. The topics that we avoid confronting in Sunday school lessons she tackles with sensitivity and honesty; it’s refreshing to read thoughtful comments on the reality of Mormonism and its place in the modern world.
Second, I love love LOVE the example she sets. She is living proof that it’s possible to be unorthodox and still be firmly grounded in faith. I have found over the last several years of self-discovery and self-making that I am Orthodox with a capital O—a very conservative, demure, letter-of-the-law, white-bread-for-the-sacrament, if-your-hair-is-past-your-ears-and-you’re-a-male-you’d-better-get-it-cut sort of person. Joanna Brooks is a democrat and LGTB activist. I admire her for being able to live unashamedly outside the mold. What’s more, when I’m struggling to reconcile my religious convictions with the reason of the world, I look to people like her as a testament that it’s possible to have an intelligent, critical, thinking mind and still believe firmly in the gospel. When critics are telling me I’m being brainwashed, I point to Joanna Brooks and say, “Not so.”
She has also recently written a book called Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith that I haven’t read but very much want to. To be honest, I’m unenthusiastic about Mormon literature generally. I don’t care for Work and the Glory, and I pretty well despise Anita Stansfield. The problem is its didacticism. It has an agenda—namely, to reaffirm your faith and reassure you that the gospel is true. Don’t mistake me; there’s nothing wrong with books that reaffirm your faith. It’s just that didactic literature rarely makes for the stuff of great literature.
But from what I understand (keeping in mind that I have yet to read her book), Joanna Brooks has her finger on something. She understands that Mormon culture is beautiful in much the same way that African-American culture and Jewish culture are beautiful, and that you don’t have to be a part of it to appreciate it. I would love to see literature come out of the Mormon community that is not aimed at Mormons, but rather at our friends and neighbors who don’t understand us. Not to force Mormonism on them, not even to convince them that we’re normal or mainstream—but to give them an insight into the Mormon variation of human experience. Because the ties that bind us go deeper than our religious differences.
Now that you have the back story, let me recount the conversation I had with my dad on the way to church today:
Me: You’re teaching Josh’s Sunday school class today, right? [Josh is my seventeen-year-old brother.]
Dad: Yup. Joanna Brooks is out of town. [pause] You’re teaching primary today?
Me: [not hearing, because I’m floored] Joanna Brooks?
Dad: Yeah, she’s out of town, so—
Me: Joanna Brooks is in our ward?
Dad: [nonplussed] Yeah. She’s Josh’s Sunday school teacher.
Me: How long has she been here?
Dad: [mildly amused] A few years. Almost as long as we’ve been here.
And then there was this conversation later with Josh, when I was telling him how awesome his Sunday school teacher is:
Me: Josh, your Sunday school teacher is Joanna Brooks?
Josh: Yeah. She’s amazing.
Me: I had no idea she was in our ward.
Josh: You didn’t?
Josh: Madeleine, her kid is in your primary class!
Josh: Yes. Ella. You know, the talkative one who wears knee-high boots and watches I Love Lucy? [Josh and I have talked about Ella, because he’s babysat her a couple of times.] Ella Brooks. That’s her daughter.
MIND BLOWN. AGAIN.
So somebody should read her book and give me a review, because it’ll probably have to wait until after my mission. And you should all check out her blog, because it’s worth reading. And by golly, someone should introduce me!