Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reflections on Walter Kirn's "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon"

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. 


  1. I read his article the other day, and while I appreciate his generosity, I also found it to be very sad.

    1. No kidding. Kirn's generosity is nothing more than guilt and coincidence conjoined. I feel precisely the same toward my "Judaism." But the communitarian "instinct" is neither religious nor extraordinary. Moreover, it is as self-centered as any arrangement made for the purpose of getting by. The warmth of its embrace is equal to the warmth of escaping a tight place. To grant it special provenance is understandable, but regrettable, too, because it is not at all about real cooperation and care. It is about the lie of empathy in the cause of some metaphysical force. It doesn't care about real community, such as the pain of animals caught in the assembly of factory farming and it extorts the world of money for purpose of pretense--as if it didn't really care about wealth--that it only cares about self-reliance with wealth as the natural exhaust. So, it doesn't care about truth either.

      Mormonism, like all faiths, is a lie--but it is so preposterous that it is fraudulent and haughty comedy. That would be fine if the lie didn't so easily pass from dilation to damage. The moment a Mormon, ex or otherwise, grants the faith a soft place to sit, he has given up on the real mystery of life--and that, is serious damage, indeed.

    2. Cursed is the one / who sees imperfect effort and names it pretense / for she shall inherit emptiness.

      Cursed is the one / who seeks the genuine and rejects the real / all things will slip out of his grasp.

      Cursed are they / who makes prisons of their own suspicion / who complain of the odor of each balm for our wounds.

  2. I loved the article as well. Well-written and sincere and touching.

    Also, I was listening to NPR interview one of the nuns in the middle of the Catholic Church scandal, and the interviewer asked her what she thought it meant "to obey" since that was one of their covenants. The nun said that "obey" was rooted in the Latin word for "listen." She then talked about the importance of listening to God and the needs of those around you as a part of that obedience. It made a light go on in my head. Even w/in the church we sometimes get confused with the worldly idea of obedience meaning we don't even think about what's being asked-we just do it out of fear or intellectual/emotional laziness. To me that's not really listening, that's the following blindly thing. To listen is to really take in what's being said and try to hear and understand-and that it's a process of understanding/listening that comes in the doing of what we hear being asked. That to me is an essential part of a cooperative community.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Goldberg.

    I am impressed with your poignant prose and substance of your analysis.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. As Makayla, I also found the article to be generous... and very sad.



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