I study stories. Particularly, I study the ways people tell stories in order to make sense of who they are and where they fit in this world. The stories we tell ourselves and others are powerful forces in our lives, and I love digging into exactly how people do it.
One major reason we tell stories is so we can construct our identities. We string together the autobiographical events in our lives into narratives and each time we tell one of these stories, we make many decisions about which events to share or not share, and how to put them together in order to create a picture of who we are, or, at least, who we want other people to think we are.
In my research, I have read and heard a lot of people tell their stories as members and ex-members of the Church, and a common thread I’ve seen is that we feel compelled to include in our stories what I’ve come to call “Mormon Ethos Credentials.”
For example, at some point after meeting another member or ex-member of the church, we often tell each other if we are a returned missionary or not, if we were married in the temple or not, about important callings we’ve had (bishop, high council, relief society president, etc.), and we also say how old we were when we joined the church, or talk about how many generations back members of our family joined the church, and whether they crossed the plains, or were polygamists, or general authorities, etc.
The main reason we tell these facts is that, in some ways, they work together to create an argument about whether or not we really do belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A friend of mine recently pointed out that within Church culture we have two stories that most of us align ourselves with: a convert narrative, or a pioneer narrative. There are, of course, more than that, and there are definitely issues that come from thinking in black-or-white, this-or-that terms. In fact, I see my own story as a hybrid. But for the purposes of this post, I’m just going to focus on the two.
Those that can list off the “right” credentials “pass the test” so to speak, and easily prove their belonging in the church. Many times, though not always, these are the people who tell their stories as being part of the “pioneer narrative.”
We often hold those who have more “Mormon Ethos Credentials” like pioneer heritage in higher regard than converts. They are often who are chosen as leaders in the church. When a member with pioneer heritage falls away from the Church, many shake their heads in wonder, and have difficulty explaining how it could possibly happen.
New converts to the Church usually have few to no credentials, and are those that can lay claim to the “convert narrative.” Few, if any, members would question the belonging of a new convert in the Church based on the requirements of the Pioneer narrative. They haven’t had time to serve missions, or cross the plains, or be married in the temple. Their baptism and confirmation are all they have to prove their belonging, and we accept it. (I am guessing that’s part of why confirmations for converts are often done in front of the congregation on Sunday mornings instead of at the baptismal ceremony: to provide visual proof of his/her belonging).
However, because they are converts, they are many times compared to children, or young plants; their testimony are but small flames. They aren’t yet mature. When a new convert falls away from the Church, the parable of the sower gives us an easy explanation why: it’s just how things go sometimes.
Right or wrong, these two stories help us to make sense of each other by learning a few vital facts and then assuming we have a good hold on what kind of member the person is.
Interestingly though, those who tell one story often feel what my friend calls “holy envy” for the other. Even though we may feel locked into one story or the other, we often wish we had the benefits of identifying with the other group.
Converts often wish they had grown up in the church so they could know the primary songs or could have gone through seminary or on a mission. They might see the recognition that those with deep Mormon roots get and wish they could have the same.
Then, those of the pioneer narrative often wish for the vast, drastic changes from sinner to saint they see in their convert brothers and sisters. Some want to tell their own version of Saul’s or Alma’s story, but with themselves as the main character. Some see Al Fox’s tattoos and wish the evidence of Christ’s atonement and forgiveness was as immediately apparent in their lives as it is in hers.
I’ve been guilty of this myself. I home teach a new convert and I remember hearing him read scriptures from the Book of Mormon for the very first time. I told him how jealous I was of him because I can’t read a verse of scripture without recalling everything I’ve ever heard about that verse, or connecting it to my often troubled interactions with the scriptures. I told him that I wish I had what he had. I guess I was just trying to tell him I was excited for him.
Later though, in Sunday School, he said that he felt pressured because of what I said to have amazing experiences every time he read.
My holy envy of his convert narrative just made him feel uncomfortable.
In either case, the pioneer or the convert feels their past in conflict with their present. They hear the other narrative and wish it, or at least parts of it, was theirs.
No matter which narrative you identify with (or even if you identify with neither), our present feelings of belonging within the church are closely tied to our past and how we tell it. But the good news is that once we recognize that telling stories is a choice, and that we can retell our stories in new ways, we open a world of possibility for ourselves, and feel less pressure to pigeonhole our brothers and sisters into strict categories. We can begin to respect all kinds of stories, instead of relying the ones passed down to us from before.
If you want to get to know someone, you have to sit down and ask them to tell their story, not someone else’s.
This is wonderful! Perfectly put. Thanks for articulating it so well. I’ve many of the feelings you describe.
For myself, I have pioneer ancestors and I am a pioneer of sorts within my own family. I also had a conversion experience in the years around age 25, after having been raised in the church. . . So, I suppose I’m a conglomeration of several narratives. (aren’t we all) The best part of the whole thing is that Jesus makes a new heart for everyone at some point, right? That new heart made me read scriptures with new eyes, as if “for the first time.” And when we are new in Christ, we are all pretty much in the same boat. Thanks again for a wonderful Sabbath morning read, Steven.
Thank you. My heart felt warmed by your story. I am not ‘in’ the church at all anymore and may never be again. But I hold a current temple recommend, and I receive the sacrament every week from my husband in my home.
I am completely isolated and due to a rare, debilitating, crippling disease that will not go away or get better (though I can experience periods of remission)–
I have not been able to enter my church building for over five years.
I have been forgotten by all but a good bishop who has a compassionate wife (she doesn’t know what to do with me, but she is kind to one of my children who is still at home) and two elderly couples.
When I try to explain my illnes, people become disturbed, so I don’t.
Doctors acknowledge the existence of it but also acknowledge that they can’t fix it or even make it more comfortable, so, they, too, prefer not to think about it.
Sometimes a ‘caring’ person will try to contact me and tell me how much I am missing, and then I cry for a while and get over it.
Being completely forgotten by a community of faith with the exception of a harried bishop (who has an amazing heart and who will sadly be replaced by who knows whom, and some in the ward simply will not tolerate my existence, because they can’t buttonhole me)–
and two elderly people who occasionally try to find out what is “REALLY” wrong with me–
though the husband of one of the couples, bless his heart (*tears*) spent hours on the internet trying to study my illness; not much was found, of course, but what he found made sense to him, and he realized that there was no medical help for it and that people like me have ‘hard lives’–
and when he came with his wife to see if I was ‘all right’–
I can’t even begin to tell you how touched I was.
Because he, unlike 99% of the people I know who are LDS, was trying to get it and caught a glimpse.
It’s here on the internet where I see compassion, and I wish I could make up a ward of all of the kindness people I see.
I am a 7th generation member, but it truly means nothing to me anymore.
I have a lot of secrets (including black Mormon pioneers who passed and then when one popped up who couldn’t pass . . . it was tricky with the priesthood)–
so many secrets. I am grateful for these people, because I know they felt isolation and rejection. SO grateful to have them for ancestors, even though they are long dead.
My husband is a convert, and I am so amazed at the change in his life, and yet, even now, he is damaged by a childhood so horrific that people don’t want to hear that either. So he doesn’t talk about that.
I can’t talk about my health, even if I could be around people–
and he can’t talk about his background, because it makes people too sad.
So sometimes we pick a time and just talk to each other–
None of it means anything to me anymore, except those few choice people who had faith in Jesus Christ which carried them over amazing trials. I know they are aware of me. I think they think especially of me. Maybe that’s pretty self-centered, but I need it.
Todd Compton’s ‘outcast’ article about the Book of Mormon speaks to me.
All that matters is Jesus and being kind and loving to others, and there are too many LDS who don’t realize that. Who really don’t care. They are too busy checking off all their perfection charts.
The woman whose picture is above has always said thoughtful, wise, compassionate things.
And, Steven H., thank you for giving me a chance to come on here while my family is at church and feel a sense of community, if only for a few moments.
Thank you Anonymous for opening up and being vulnerable here for us. We need a lot more of that. These stories make us stronger.
fantastic post Steven!
Those are the goods!!!
Steven, I love the idea of listening to each other’s real stories, instead of relying on typical narratives. Human beings must categorize to survive, and yet categorization of other people can be quite problematic. Learning to undo those assumptions and categories to truly love each other is key to following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Loved this so much. If my computer’s internet was working I would go into more details on why, but from my phone I just wanted to say thank-you. I needed to read this and your linked story about your own narrative today.