Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bad Faith

My opinion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has always been ambivalent at best. On the one hand, their social and family organization is admirable, and Mormons themselves are often very nice people.

Then there’s everything else.

Mormon aesthetics, for instance, a source of niggling irritation. Their statues are impressive, their temples objectively pleasing to the eye, especially when surrounded by ugly modern glass and concrete structures. But their churches have a McDonalds-like uniformity, their religious artwork is kitschy and uninspired, and Mark Twain was never more astute than in his observation of the Book of Mormon’s prose as “chloroform in print.” And even, perhaps especially, the LDS Church’s most opulent structures tend ultimately to unsettle, as if the architects and sculptures were trying much too hard to impress.

Yes, there are worse offenses, like the church’s bogus theology and rank politicking, but I was downtown looking for sites of historical and cultural significance. If I could put all the bullshit of the church itself aside, I thought, I might be able to enjoy myself and learn something. Or at least see something interesting. So I decided to see what Temple Square had to offer.

I first looked at the Handcart Pioneer Monument, commemorating those who made the journey from Illinois west pulling their own carts because they could not afford oxen. It depicts a man, humbly dressed, dragging his burden, while his wife looks on to the child riding in back. I’m a sucker for bronze cast sculpture work and wish more sterling individuals were commemorated in that fashion, so a work like this appealed to me. I sketched it, briefly and simply, and felt like I was again in New York or London, where statuary of this sort is abundant. The feeling would not last long.

Not far away, on the temple’s western flank, was a curved slab engraved with descriptions of the church’s principles on law and government. While I stood in front of it, pad and pen in hand, considering whether I ought attempt to sketch the temple, two girls that were about my age approached. Sister Perez was a smiling Guatemalan, a little short and with wavy black hair, while Sister McGill to her left was more my height, with straight, parted brown hair and a mischievous brow. They asked me about myself, told me some factoids about the temple (“Did you know it took forty years to build? It was the first building started and the last of them finished.”), and asked some lead-in questions.

“Do you know why we have the temples?” Sister McGill asked me. I gave a somewhat stammering answer about sealing the husband and wife upon marriage. The Sisters were impressed.

This led into a discussion (which we continued in the pews of the Assembly, the Mormons’ original worship space with a grand piano and pipe organ up front) on faith in God, the nature of belief, that sort of thing. There were many digressions, on human nature, faith as (false) comfort, the meaning of life, how can I trust only my fallible senses, my upbringing.

The questions were at first innocuous, if trivial: “What did you used to pray about?” This is like asking me what brand was my favorite toothbrush. But I tried to remember something specific. ‘God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food, Amen.’
“So they were rote,” the Sisters said with some understanding. I added that we prayed for our health and that others might get over their own adversities. “That’s good of you,” Sister Perez remarked.

Gradually the line of inquiry became more pointed: “If God existed, would he want you to believe in him?” I told them I thought such a question to be navel gazing of the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin variety, but trying to be generous, I said I’d want a god who rewarded even the nonbelievers, so long as they were intellectually honest and had questioned their ideas.

The Sisters were not impressed.

We often circled back around the question of why we choose to believe or not believe, and I said—and I do think this—that I don’t think people actually choose whether they believe or they don’t. It’s a matter of temperament. One can’t “choose” to find an abstract argument convincing, it simply is or it isn’t. They didn’t believe this (didn’t choose to believe this?), which is a pretty fundamental disagreement, and so we tended to talk past one another, and I pointed that out.

They finally suggested I read a chapter of the Book of Mormon. I politely declined.

“It’s just one page.”

Thus began their endgame. They—mostly Sister McGill, really—asked me how I could really say I didn’t believe, when I wasn’t willing to. I mentioned temperament again, and she threw it back in my face.

“ That is not true. You and I both have similar temperaments [a fair enough observation; I should have said ‘predilection’]. You are charismatic, and you—”

I had to laugh at that.

“No, you are. You think things through before you say something, and you respect intelligence, you are meritocratic. And so am I, and yet we came to different conclusions. I know, I have felt God’s presence in my heart, and all the answers to any of the questions I have had I have found this book,” she pointed to her Book of Mormon with a laminated binding, “and I am positive you would too. But you need to approach it with openness and a willingness to see it, and to explore it in a faith-encouraging environment.”

Sorry, but no thanks.

There followed an awkward silence, as if someone had just farted at the dinner table.

“Well, this was a really interesting discussion,” said Sister Perez, and that was that. They left through the Assembly side exit, I back through the entrance. That was enough of Temple Square for me.

Immediately after leaving I felt bad: well, aren’t yyou being close-minded? What would one little chapter hurt? Come on, man, don’t be such a jerk. This continued for a few minutes more, until I actually thought about what had just happened. And then I got angry.

I am all for discussion between believers and non-believers; I in fact had another long talk with one, a Christian relative of mine, later that evening. Such discussions are always carried out in good faith, discussion for its own sake and nothing more. The Sisters came under such a guise, being friendly and listening to me talk about myself, but with the mercenary intent of bullying me into “considering” the church, which would doubtless be followed by exploring and then joining, under the pretext of open-mindedness, never mind that I had already done my share of reading and soul-searching before settling on my atheism. They were plainclothes salesfolk, hawkers in doves’ guise. They were an infomercial posing as an NPR interview.

Really, I should have known better. I was in Temple bloody Square, Ground Zero of Mormondom. But anytime I’ve ever encountered their Elder minions, always at my front door and upfront about their intentions, I’ve politely said no thanks and been done with it. I’m pretty cynical about people generally, but I am willing to give individuals the benefit of the doubt. I simply didn’t expect these nice ladies to exploit that good will and turn it back on itself, to emotionally blackmail me by making me feel bad for parrying their dagger smiles. I understand now a little bit of what a battered housewife must feel when her husband says she shouldn’t have made him hit her.

When our discussion was still a procession of architectural factoids Sister McGill had told me, with some pride, that the pillars in the Assembly are not actually marble, but pinewood that’s been painted to look like it. Likewise the pews have been painted, individually, to look like oak. Within this admission, rare in its candor, lies a potent metaphor for every reservation I had about the Mormon church: their technically impressive but often tacky artwork, the manufactured grandeur of their buildings, the Book of Mormon’s faux King James English, the emissaries’ training in the dark arts of aggressive cheer. All of it is just so much posture and pretense, a Renaissance whitewash of Medieval intents, the deceitful seed of a theocratic, money-digging charlatan prick.

I had forgotten to bring my camera downtown with me, and so I did not get any photos of the Square. I had thought I would return tomorrow to snap some, but frankly I don’t want to deal with anymore false friendliness, and I would feel like some unwilling shill for them besides. Normally, denying the Mormons a place in the visual documentation of my trip would be all the personal revenge I could have. But this is no ordinary weekend: today is the final day of The Official Twilight Convention ©. I can take faint comfort knowing that I will spend my time with the religious devotees of mediocre vampire fiction instead of with the vampiric devotees of a mediocre religious fiction.

1 comment:

  1. "The Sisters were not impressed." is probably the best line of this entire piece.