I must admit that I've had a soft spot for Walter Kirn since he decided to follow the Mormon Lit Blitz on Twitter. But even though I'm prejudiced in his favor, you should still trust me when I urge you to read the entirety of Kirn's recent New Republic piece, "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon."
After you have read it, you may come back and read the rest of this post. If you want to--the Kirn piece is really plenty of good reading for one day.
The first thing I want to say about the article is that Walter Kirn's attitude of charity is something we could all learn from. He didn't have to be nice. He surely had some bad experiences he left out, and he didn't have to put all those positive details in. As someone who chose to leave a "suspect" faith a long time ago, our culture allows him to be as bitter or as flippant as he wants. The victimized, bitter route is one many people would reward with sympathy. The flippant, superior route is one many people would reward with laughter and respect. But to be articulate about the unique value of an unpopular group? He risked getting called out as sentimental at best, or even as a collaborator with a sinister Mormon agenda.
His charity is brave, because he can only be charitable by making himself vulnerable. By admitting he respects people his friends laugh at. By admitting that for all his intervening sophistication, there's still a Mormon part of him: "Sometimes a person doesn’t know what he’s made of until strangers try to tear it down."
The second thing I wanted to say is that Kirn seems to understand that you can't separate the good fruits of the gospel from the hard trunk that nourishes them. I've seen other liberal former Mormons point out that our Church, though often considered deeply conservative, excels at core liberal values of cooperation and caring. But many of them have turned around immediately to bemoan that such a wonderful community is blighted by a backward authoritarianism or irrational beliefs. Kirn doesn't--and I think it's because he recognizes that without our stories, and without our willing obedience, the communitarian culture couldn't exist.
A secular democratic culture values debate above all else. And in many cases, debate is good. It gives us much better science, for instance. If people didn't get so emotionally caught up and socially entrenched in their positions, a culture of endless debate might also give us better policy decisions.
But if you are set on making your arguments and getting your way and not accepting alternatives unless they align closely with your opinions, it may become difficult (as Kirn observes) to do something as simple as share a single TV show with a large group of people. Our fierce independence turns easily to isolation. We can debate, yes, but we can't always cooperate if no voice is authorized to say when the heated debating phase is done.
It seems to me that someone who's willing to accept the Book of Mormon on God's word (rather than on their own understanding and only after comprehensive evidence) will also be more likely to serve on nothing more than God's word (rather than insisting on a cost-benefit analysis before committing to help). It seems to me that someone who's willing to follow a prophet or a
bishop or a parent will have an easier time getting a job done than
someone who takes extreme pride in their right not to be told by anyone
what to do.
Kirn seems to suggest that a person who can live with perplexing doctrines patiently is also equipped to listen to a desperate, damaged soul in patience and with a readiness to reach out. (It's easier to reject problematic teachings, maybe, but it's also easy to abandon problem-plagued people.)
Many people have seen the beauty in Mormonism's cooperative culture. Reflexive, active love is a sweet fruit. But the trunk of the tree is an organized humility that's easy for many to deride as blind faith or groupthink. That's our secret, I suppose--obedience and duty nourish love. A heart that's willing to believe and to belong is also more willing to act when aid is desperately needed.
Walter Kirn presents himself as someone who chose independence over humble service. Who asserted his right to publicly reject beliefs because he also wanted the right to reject the radical responsibilities Jesus yoked his followers with. But I admire him for telling the truth about the great gospel experiment when he could easily have praised the fruits and trashed the tree.
So thank you, Walter. And: we miss you, Brother Kirn.