Fall 2020 Reading Circles

As we enter this Fall of our Discontent (or Content?), I have created new Reading Circles that I hope will help bring out more people to read and to discuss. These Reading Circles begin in late September / early October and go through November. All of the Reading Circles will be through Zoom or other video calling technology.

Dates and times are provided at the bottom of each introduction to the Circle, along with a weekly syllabus. Times are provided for the major North American time zones; please note that this is for brevity and not exclusion. If you are not in those time zones and feel you can make the Reading Circle, please apply. I hope these Circles can be robust and dynamic in the views and experiences that people bring to the table.

Gender, Sexuality, and Faith: Transgender Histories and Theologies

The Gender, Sexuality, and Faith Reading Circle will be turning from Mormonism, gender, and sexuality, to thinking deeply about how to theologize and sanctify bodies of all type.

In order to love others, as disciples of Christ are asked to do, we must understand other people—their experiences, their perspectives, their histories, and their theologies. All of these are in plural forms because one person does not represent, indeed cannot be representative of, all people collected and organized into our various spectrums of identities. Furthermore, in order to understand people, everyone must do their part to create welcoming and nourishing (not just accepting) environments, places in which people feel comfortable and safe sharing their selves.

As an attempt at thinking deeply through lay theology in a group, the Gender, Sexuality, and Faith Reading Circle invites you to apply for a six-week reading group that will read through Susan Stryker’s Transgender History and various articles on the intersections of transgender studies and theology. Together, we will discuss how to theologize the trans* body as a heavenly and celestial part of the body of Christ. I envision this group will focus on Christian doctrine and theology broadly (although, knowing my own background and my personal social media reach, it will most likely favor Latter-day Saint theology).

Each week, we will read a chapter of Transgender History and pair it with an article in a large umbrella of transgender theology (being theological works by or about transgender people).

Members of the Reading Circle will need to obtain a copy of Transgender History (second edition), but the articles will be provided through Dropbox.

Sundays, October 4, 2020 to November 8, 2020
Pacific time: 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Mountain time: 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Central time: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Eastern time: 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Week 1: Introductions | Marcella Althaus-Reid, “Outing Theology: Thinking Christianity out of the Church Closet.”

Week 2: Chp. 1 Contexts, Concepts, and Terms | Susannah Cornwall, “Intersex and Transgender People,” Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender

Week 3: Chp. 2 A Hundred-Plus Years of Transgender History | Christina Hutchins, “Holy Ferment: Queer Philosophical Destabilizations and the Discourse on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Lives in Christian Institutions.”

Week 3: Chp. 3 Trans Liberation | Kelly Kraus, “Queer Theology: Reclaiming Christianity for the LGBT Community.”

Week 4: Chp. 4 The Difficult Decades | Susannah Cornwall, “Recognizing the Full Spectrum of Gender? Transgender, Intersex and the Futures of Feminist Theology.”

Week 5: Chp. 5 The Millennial Wave | Elyse J. Raby, “‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’: A Theology of Creation and Divine Action in Light of Intersex.”

Week 6: Chp. 6 The Tipping Point? | Dawne Moon and Theresa W. Tobin, “Sunsets and Solidarity: Overcoming Sacramental Shame in Conservative Christian Churches to Forge a Queer Vision of Love and Justice” | Conclusions

Apply here.

Founding Potentials and Philosophies of the American Project

As we enter a new voting season, it is an excellent time to return to the founding documents of the American project in order to discuss, analyze, and interrogate the principles upon which the United States of America were founded.

The founding documents we will be working with each week will be the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederacy, United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and all 85 Federalist papers.

Instead of discussing current trends in politics, whether progressive, conservative, or liberal, this group will focus on the principles and philosophies implanted in the actual documents, discussing what they say rather than how they have interpreted since being written. In this effort, we will be doing our own interpretations, but my hope is to have the time and space to talk about what the documents actually say and what those words mean—positively and negatively.

Members of the Reading Circle will be able to use these texts in whatever form they have. Personally, I will be using online versions for the first two weeks and then reading from the Penguin Classics edition of The Federalist Papers. Various forms of these publications are welcome, though, since other publishing houses provide different footnotes and insights into the text that members of the group can bring to the Reading Circle.

Saturdays, September 19, 2020 to October 31, 2020
Pacific time: 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Mountain time: 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Central time: 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.
Eastern time: 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Week 1: Introductions, Declaration of Independence

Week 2: Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution

Week 3: Federalist 1–22

Week 4: Federalist 23–46

Week 5: Federalist 47–66

Week 6: Federalist 67–85

Week 7: Conclusion

Apply here. All Hamilton references are welcome and encouraged.

SF Studies: Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction

SF is a broad term that encompasses, for me, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative fictions that use other worlds and otherworldly ideas to interrogate the world around us (or the world around which the author lives). The SF Studies Reading Circle will be a series of Reading Circles that look deeply at various texts from SF Studies to discuss them chapter-by-chapter. Signing up for this Reading Circle signs you up to discuss our first book, John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.

One of the founding studies in SF studies, Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction engages with 19th- and 20th-century science fiction and its relationship to colonialism and imperialism. It looks at the founding of the genre (if one can consider SF having a certain founding) and how it was affected by the cultural conventions of the day.

Members of the Reading Circle will need to obtain a copy of Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.

Wednesdays, October 7, 2020 to November 11, 2020
Pacific time: 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Mountain time: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Central time: 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Eastern time: 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: Chapter 1: Introduction: The Colonial Gaze and the Frame of Science Fiction

Week 3: Chapter 2: Fantasies of Appropriation: Lost Race and Discovered Wealth

Week 4: Chapter 3: Dramas of Interpretation

Week 5: Chapter 4: Artificial Humans and the Construction of Race

Week 6: Chapter 5: Visions of Catastrophe | Conclusion

Apply here.

CFP: Mormonism and SF, SFRA Review

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.

Ether 12:4

I am rather thrilled to announce that I will be editing a selection of essays for SFRA Review (51.3, summer 2021) on Mormonism and SF. The full CFP can be found here.

The essays are meant to be a broad look into the intersections of Mormonism and SF, both terms used in their broadest of sense. Essays can be academic in nature or thought-provoking in intent. My hope is to provide the Science Fiction Research Association community with an introductory look into this very important intersection because Mormonism and science fiction, fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction have always walked hand-in-hand, as Mormons/Latter-day Saints have dreamt of a better world now and other worlds in the future—even worlds that they might be able to create and populate one day.

Abstracts aren’t due until March 1, 2021, so I’ll be sharing this more often when that comes around. But I figured I’d let it be on everyone’s radar.

Published: Dialogue Book Report #4: Recent books on LGBTQ issues and Mormonism

In June, I was able to record a podcast with two of my favorite scholars on Mormonism, Jaclyn Foster and Conor Hilton. The podcast is through Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. We discussed Latter-day Saint books that intersect with LGBTQ+ topics and had a great discussion.

Check it out at Dialogue’s website: https://www.dialoguejournal.com/podcasts/dialogue-book-report-4-recent-books-on-lgbtq-issues-and-mormonism/?fbclid=IwAR3fOw0dE0NJib4SGluMiv62Ud5zsYoMGYVqdvUIhC8PqmZ43J7rLdZl4mU

Reading Circles

Over the last few weeks, I have been considering how best to engage the world amidst the many things that are happening. I am happy to announce that I will be running three Reading Circles over the next few months.

A Reading Circle is a group of people who gather together to discuss a text in depth. It’s a little more intense than most reading groups, but not as nearly intense as a graduate seminar. The point of the Reading Circle is, yes, to read, but also to circle about in a conversation that makes us uncomfortable and engaged.

These Reading Circles will have three goals:

  1. To read a text. We live in a crazy busy world, one where most people don’t feel they have the time to read. As such, Reading Circles take a book and separate it out into a chapter a week, or discuss shorter works in conversation with each other.
  2. To discuss a topic by beginning, not ending, a conversation. Reading can be great; discussion and reading can be even better. The hope of these Reading Circles is to create an online space to talk about what was just read and how it specifically speaks to you and the community around you. Reading Circles are meant to begin conversation and discussion and to never be the end of it.
  3. To form community. I do not believe reading is just an individual activity. Even when you read a book, you are still interacting intimately with the thoughts of the person who wrote on the page. As such, these Reading Circles are a way to actively participate in reading by engaging with the text on your own and then bringing those engagements to a meeting that allows you to think critically, while having your own thinking critically questioned.

Reading Circles will occur online through video chat and be capped at fifteen participants.

The three Reading Circles I will be running are described as follows:

Gender, Sexuality, and Faith

In this Reading Circle, we will read Taylor Petrey’s Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism over the course of nine weeks, beginning July 19 and ending September 13. It will meet on Sundays from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Mountain. It will be capped at fifteen participants.

Petrey’s Tabernacles of Clay has been groundbreaking in its assessment of how gender and sexuality has been viewed by the institutional leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tracking the growth of the theology and teachings within the Church, Petrey charts the course of the understanding of homosexuality, gender variance, and queerness to show us that these identities and performances are more malleable in Mormon and Latter-day Saint theology than they may seem at first glance.

To join this Reading Circle, please sign up here.

Mormonism, White Supremacy, and Me

In this Reading Circle, we will read Joanna Brooks’s Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence over the course of nine weeks, beginning July 22 and ending September 16. It will meet on Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mountain. It will be capped at fifteen participants.

Joanna Brooks’s Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence came at a crucial time in America. As the United States grapples with the racist history of being built on the backs of enslaved people, how will we respond to our own personal history? This Reading Circle will discuss, over the course of nine weeks, each chapter in Brooks’s book, delving deep into what her historical efforts mean for us personally as we come to acknowledge the racist history of the Church and chart a path forward.

Sign up for this Reading Circle.

Omelas, Um-Helat, and the United States

In this Reading Circle, we will read two short stories and discuss them on July 25 at 11 a.m. Mountain. It will be capped at fifteen participants.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a haunting reminder that whatever we build as a society, we must build it on top of something. A short philosophical story, “Omelas” reminds us that community and utopian drive always come at a cost.

N. K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is a spiritual sequel to Le Guin’s meditation, considering a different option that Le Guin offered in response to discovering uncomfortable and disheartening foundational secrets of the world.

As we learn more about what surrounds us, we must come to large and consequential decisions that affect us, those around us, and those who will come after us. In our world today, as more conversations and discussions about our countries and communities occur, we will need to be able to face these issues head on. This Reading Circle will look at Omelas and Um-Helat in relation to the United States, specifically, and what is happening in this country in the current moment. As we learn more about the wrongs that occur every day, how will we respond? Join us as we discuss these topics through two excellent meditations on the subject.

Whereas the other two Reading Circles cover books, this Reading Circle will only occur once to discuss the two short stories. Sign up for this discussion here.

Reading Circles in the Future

There will be more Reading Circles in the future. Please sign up for email updates from my website (on bar to the left) to find out about more of them!

A Sunflower Reflection; or, On My Fears of Forgiveness

As a murderer lies dying, the representative of the murdered hears his confession. In essence, it is a double confession: words spoken from the mouth of the Nazi of the atrocities committed during his reign as superhuman; thoughts reflected upon in the mind of the Jew of the atrocities committed during his imprisonment as subhuman (37). The story, encapsulated in the book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal, is a philosophical and theological reflection related to the Holocaust, specifically, and humanity, generally. Being in a course on the Holocaust and the Churches this semester, I was assigned to read it this week, and as I am a writer, I wanted to essay through some thoughts on the matter.

The book itself is the narrator’s wrestle with his response to a dying SS man who asks for his—and, hinted at, subsequently all Jews, or perhaps the Jews the SS man has murdered—forgiveness. The narrator does not respond to the man to offer his forgiveness, but he does sit with the dying man to hear his confession. The text wrestles with the narrator’s response. The final question Wiesenthal places before the reader comes at the close of the story: “You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?’” (98).

In approaching this question, I’ve thought about it through the frame of the various identities that make up one Adam James McLain. I thought of the murders of Mormons, both to them and by them. I thought of Stonewall and queer liberation, the lives lost. I thought of indigenous genocide at the hands of a land of freedom. I thought of atrocities caused through wars that I have, inevitably and inadvertently, supported. I thought of electroshock and conversion therapy in all its pernicious forms. I thought of suicides of queer youths, blood spilled at the feet of God. Framing it in this way allowed me to picture myself on both sides: that of the murderer and that of the murdered. This is, of course, not to say that my own identity or my own experiences supersede those that occurred to the victims of the Holocaust. It is to say that I am attempting at something that is impossible—understanding—but I hope the attempt in and of itself is enough to help me in my sphere of influence grow.

My answer to the question is that I fear that I would offer forgiveness to the murderer as he lay dying.

I am afraid of this reaction because of the perceived charity I think I hold toward other human beings. I am a creature who does not like others to be uncomfortable; I tend toward appeasing those around me so everyone is taken care of. I want all to be satiated and cared for, even at the cost to my own well-being. As such, I worry that my internalized drive to make sure everyone around me is all right would urge me to forgive him.

But even more, I fear my response of forgiveness because I am not sure I should offer forgiveness because of three thoughts on the matter:

1. I am not representative of the people who have died. In life, when they could assign this office to me, they did not have the opportunity; so who am I to represent them in absolving someone of the actions committed? (This is dealt with in the text through the narrator’s friend Josek, [65].)

2. I am not sure, and probably never will be entirely positive, that someone who commits atrocities like murder should ever be forgiven—let alone absolved—of those actions. 

2a. When I was an active participant inside Christianity, I was told over and over again that God is who we should leave to judge those who commit sins such as murder (see Genesis 9:6; Exodus 20:13; Matthew 19:18; Alma 39:5–6; D&C 42:18, 79). However, I think this is a tactic of denial that allows a person to set aside wicked acts of fellow human beings and remove from themselves their life and conscious because of the level of difficulty required to think through our societal reactions to these types of actions. I hope, as I continue my life and career, to be able to form responses to terrible atrocities so we, as a society, can move toward a justice that can never be completely whole, but is utterly necessary for the prospect of healing and growth. That requires, though, for all of us to think deeply, ponder profusely, and determine rightly the best—not simply the most righteous—choices. 

(Wiesenthal deals briefly with this question: “But ere long priests, philanthropists, and philosophers implored the world to forgive the Nazis. Most of these altruists had probably never even had their ears boxed, but nevertheless found compassion for the murderers of innocent millions. The priests said indeed that the criminals would have to appear before the Divine Judge and that we could therefore dispense with earthly verdicts against them, which eminently suited the Nazis’ book. Since they did not believe in God they were not afraid of Divine Judgment. It was only earthly justice that they feared” [85, my emphasis].)

3. I am not sure how a level of repentance and forgiveness could be reached to ever provide atonement for those who have passed; I do not believe that level can be reached on a deathbed; as such, I am not sure I should cheat those who have passed by providing forgiveness. Wiesenthal states that “forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision” (98). Forgiveness is an act; but so is repentance and the seeking of forgiveness. Action, volition, on both parties’ account, is required, and I am just not sure what form of action could inspire a level of repentance that could provide forgiveness to one who has murdered.

Many of these thoughts, as I strive to constantly say, are not final. Even a published book is never the final word on a subject. As such, I will continue to think on these thoughts, and I hope you can join with me in thinking.

Published: Review of Is He Nuts?

For the book I’m writing, I’m preparing a massive annotated bibliography on a lot of things dealing with Latter-day Saint/Mormon issues, theology, and spirituality. As such, I get the privilege of reading a ton of books. On some of them, I’ll be writing reviews.

I read Is He Nuts? Why a Gay Man Would Become a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ recently and wrote a review that the Association for Mormon Letters picked up.

You can check it out at this URL: http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/reviews/current-reviews/schleicher-is-he-nuts-reviewed-by-adam-mclain/

In Which Adam Reveals Some of the Ways He Organizes His Life

I do a lot to organize the hazard of activity that is my life. I use four different apps (sometimes more), various notebooks, and a whiteboard. It’s a lot to manage and (let’s be honest) mismanage when it comes to juggling full-time work, full-time school, and personal research and writing projects. I wouldn’t have my life any other way though (okay, maybe add in a dog… maybe another human being… but only one of those is under my full control and currently not feasible in the flux of soon-to-graduate and seeking-future-positions mode that I’m in).

My whiteboard for this week.

The whiteboard is for a week-by-week quick look at the things I need to do. As you can see, I’ve partitioned my life into six different units. The first three—Sex, Gender, Sexuality; Women, Religion, Agency; Holocaust—are the three courses I’m in this semester. They mostly have readings due. The Data Science unit is an online certificate I’m getting through Harvard EdX. The Writing + Conferences is various chapters/parts of chapters I need to write, research I need to do for articles and conference presentations, and other things I need to do to prepare for those (I’ve averaged 2–3 conferences a semester while getting my master’s degree, so it’s become a lifeblood of my activity). The Other is for language learning, things I need to do around the house, people I need to get back with (so many emails that I still haven’t sent), and anything else that pops up like job applications and other activities.

Screenshot of my 2Do desktop app

2Do is my main app that keeps everything organized for a semester or a project. It’s basically my giant, all-encompassing checklist. As you can see in the image, I have three core groups—Classes, Work, and Projects—that have various lists under them. I place everything from the syllabus for each class into the Classes section and assign due dates, which keeps me organized for a semester. The Work and Projects groups create lists of things that I need to do to finish various work and personal projects.

In addition, I use Tags to generally track the part of a reading (if there are multiple chapters) and other things within the groups. As you can see from the image above, I’m not strict with this, but that’s one of my cardinal rules of planning: don’t force it. Right now, tags in 2Do aren’t my thing, but they could be in a week or two days.

Reminders app, GoodTask app, Calendar app, and 2Do (all desktop versions)

I took this one from my mission. Every week, I do two weekly planning sessions: Monday night and Thursday night. Monday is to plan for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; Thursday is to plan for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

In these sessions, I use the 2Do app to see everything I need to do and then I bring that into my Reminders app to assign an hour each day for the next few days to an assignment. In tandem with the Reminders app, I use the GoodTask app, which brings together my Calendar and Reminders apps to show me what I have assigned when. This is so I don’t assign something when I have class or work. This is also key because I assign a time to each of the items in my 2Do app, and then it pops up on my phone and reminds me to do something or other.

I also do nightly planning sessions, just in case anything needs to change for the next day. These are usually around 8 p.m., so I can do that, journal, and turn off my screens quickly. I also try to read for pleasure for thirty minutes to an hour every night (currently enjoying lesbian necromancers in space, a.k.a. Gideon the Ninth). I turn on my sleep story around 9–9:30 p.m. and go to bed, to wake up around 3 a.m. and head to the gym. (My daily, monastic lifestyle will probably be a different blog post someday.)

March 2020 habit tracker

In addition to apps, I track habits in my journal. I got this idea from Victoria Schwab, and I really enjoy doing it. Basically, you write out the month, and then you write out things you would like to do every day (but don’t necessarily have to be done every day). These are daily accomplishments so if ever I get discouraged I can look back and see that I’ve been working on my habits, even if I’m 100 pages behind on my reading.

So, for example, if I even read a little bit for class (no matter how much), I still mark it as complete for the day. I usually do check on all this at the end of the day when I journal some thoughts out.

It’s all a juggle, but that’s how I’m doing it right now. I change up every year (few months) or so, as I learn and try out new techniques. I think that’s a key thing to me: none of this is binding. Knowing that helps me be able to creatively flex and be malleable when it comes to various life circumstances.

On Christian Theology, a Continuous Reflection on Potential

Every morning I walk by a United Methodist Church on my way to the gym. The building is of the gothic variety, investing itself in awe and wonder and power and history. This Christmas past they set up a cut out of the nativity scene. As I walked by this morning, the scene was still set up, presenting the continuous message of peace the Child heralds. Not yet Christ, not quite God, just infant, the Child, like Christianity itself, holds wondrous potential.

Because of the sober winter Boston has felt this year, I saw a pile of melting snow off to the side of the Child. Gray. White. Brown. Melting. The snow seemed as if it could be symbolic of the way Christianity seems to be receding from the public. Active participation in Christian religion in general, as Pew and other sources have reported on numerous times, is dwindling. For various reasons, people are not finding fulfillment and joy in the pews of Christian churches. With such great potential, Christianity, sadly, is losing many devotees.

This blog post is not meant to be a reflection on the reasons people are vacating churches. Those reasons are legion and are mainly personal. Also, I’m not a social scientist, so I don’t look at the movements and motivations of people.

I am a literary theorist. And as such, I like to see the potential of words. It’s something that attracts me to study of theology itself, rather than the study of religion. Theology, for me, is the belief of God and all that follows that belief as written in words and given to a community of believers. Those words hold potential.

So, even as Christian activity devolves like the melting snow, its theology, the ideal words as delivered by people thinking deeply about God and belief, can be read and the potential, like the Child in the manger, can be seen.

Thousands of human years have been spent thinking, considering, ruminating, and theologizing what Christianity, in a broad sense, means. What is the Christian mission and message? Who is able to engage with that mission and message? Writing on that has led to colonization, crusade, and control; but it has also led to love, liberation, and leadership.

How does one balance the scales, on one side the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the Child in the manger, on the other side the goodness that has happened because of that same Child?

I focus on the Child in the manger, rather than the Man on the cross, because the Child is potential, whereas the Man is fulfillment.

Christianity, even though it is waning, still has great potential to do good. And, yes, it still is doing great evil at the same time. I generally do not use the words “good” and “evil” because they establish a moral framework that eliminates some levels and abilities of inquest and inquiry. But here, I’d like to use them because, if viewed through a Christian moral valence, Christianity itself has acted contrary to its moral compass, which can be equated to great evil, while also following its moral compass, which can be the doing of good. The words of theology have led people to act in many different ways, ways that should not be shunted away but rather engaged and overcome.

I see potential in the way that Christianity teaches to focus on loving God and through that loving of God to love neighbors. Love is the four-letter word that I think about most. It’s so ubiquitous and contingent, unifying and divisive. It’s a complicated emotion to be encapsulated in so few letters. But I think, and hope, in general the love of neighbor as funneled through devotion and love of a higher being is a positive force. (John 14:15)

I see potential in the care Christianity urges its practitioners to give to those around it. As Jesus healed, as his apostles and followers healed, the Christian disciple is urged to care. To heal. To mend. To bridge build, instead of wall construct. (James 1:27)

I see potential in the clarion calls to peace make and become family. To give the kingdom to the poor. To fill the hungry and thirsty. To obtain mercy by being merciful. (Matthew 5:3–9)

At the end, I return to the Child in the manger. Even though that Child was God clothed in flesh, he, it, they, was, is, and were new, innocent, filled with potential. That Child had not yet healed the sick. That Child had not yet carried a cross, been spat upon, been used as a political tool. That Child was just a Child, with every need placed upon the parents, at the whim of the world that is so cold and cruel. Christianity may not be a child now, thousands of years is a decent amount of time, but I believe it can think on that potential and reclaim it.

Of Testimony, Revelation, and Story: The Empty Church and the First Vision

Journeys are sacred. We need to listen to and respect other people’s journeys especially when they are not like our own. This is how we learn, friends. This is what spiritual growth looks like. Seeing beyond what’s in your own house.

Mette Ivie Harrison, “What I Still Believe,” in The Empty Church: Essays and Poetry on a Mormon Sabbatical

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to read The Empty Church: Essays and Poetry on a Mormon Sabbatical by Mette Ivie Harrison. This book was beautiful, personal, and wonderful. It was enlightening to read someone going through a faith transition and hear her candid take on the Church, on her own faith, and on her own journey. This wasn’t a story distilled to myth that is shared over the pulpit; it was an individual’s personal interaction with deity written on the page, stark and glowing.

While reading The Empty Church, the Joseph Smith Papers and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a podcast series titled The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. In its six episodes, the podcast provides historical perspective to the oft-quoted (at least in the Church) story, a story that has been distilled into a myth from the multiple accounts of Joseph Smith. Spencer McBride connects historian’s work with reinvigorating and reinvestigating a story that I had the privilege to share countless times during my mission and time in the Church.

Listening to these two stories in tandem led me to think on the concepts of testimony, revelation, and story, and out of those thoughts, this brief blog post was written. Thank you for muddling along with me.

Growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, inside and outside of Utah but wholly inside the western United States, I was taught that prophets held authority, given them by God, to receive revelation on behalf of the world. Others were distilled that ecclesiastical authority through priesthood keys granted from the prophet through proper lines of authority, and these people, like a bishop or stake president, were privileged to receive revelation on behalf of the people within their given jurisdiction and assignment. In addition, parents could receive revelation for their children because they held stewardship over them, and individuals were supposed to be able to receive revelation for themselves. It was simple, clear cut, one could draw a line from self to father to bishop to stake president to area seventy to quorum of the twelve to first presidency to prophet to Jesus Christ to Heavenly Father to Grand-God to Great-Grand-God and so on. A never-ending chain of revelatory authority.

However, as I think on and consider revelation, I realize, over and over, that revelation is not, and cannot, be that simple and clear cut though. If it were, I don’t think, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe, the Church believed-to-be-established by the first followers of Jesus Christ would have gone away from this planet. It’s the complications and the nuance of revelation that caused that institution to evolve into the great behemoth that we call Christianity or, as I prefer, Christianities.

Revelation is personal. It’s individual. Yes, a prophet holds sway over a large amount that follow the words spoken from the prophet’s mouth, but the revelation a prophet receives, the guidance received, is still funneled through that prophet’s personal experience, the personal view. We cannot divorce his (or her or their or xer, etc.) individuality and individualness from the layer of jurisdiction this individual is given.

Harrison’s work profoundly made me consider this individuality because she engaged with it. Throughout the text, Harrison expresses that revelation (whether her own, the lack of revelation given from leadership, or revelation that did not match her own personal revelation) led her away from the Church. As people who believe in revelation, especially the revelation of a young boy in a grove of trees, Latter-day Saints must give her that due and accept that revelation for one is not revelation for another. I appreciate, especially in this moment of my own intercourse with revelation, Church, and God, that Harrison spent some of her time living on this planet to write a book that engaged with her own individual forms of belief, revelation, story, and vision.

Like Harrison’s text, The First Vision podcast takes us back to an individual receiving individual revelation that others will eventually read, consider, follow, or not follow. Smith, the podcast reminds its listeners, was an individual person, a momentary conscious on this blip of a planet in a vast universe, who received guidance from some divine hand. It takes the listener back to before the atrocities in Missouri, before the gold-digging in New York and Pennsylvania, before the mobs, before the tarring and feathering, before the revelation upon revelation, before the polygamy, before the founding of a Church that grew from six members to over millions, before what we see today as the stalwart and monolithic Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to that boy. Young. In the woods. Wondering.

The First Vision gives the listener what any great historical writing does: an opportunity to interact as if we were in that moment. From podcast episodes about what the Sacred Grove would’ve looked like (ep. 6) to the religious moment of the time, the podcast gives us a different vision, a nuanced story, a testimony within the bounds of history.

I think this is so important to remember when interacting with grand institutions like what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become (see, for example, the recent conversations around the finances of the Church and learning that it holds, casually, in one account, more money than the endowment of the university at which I attend and more money than many countries combined). It’s important to remember that the leaders of this institution are still people—mostly white, cisgender male, heterosexual, patriarchal, etc.—and that people-ness can sometimes cloud and overshadow and, yes, inform in a positive way the revelation they receive.

The Empty Church fiercely brings the reader into sharp understanding of the leadership’s fallibility, which I believe is important for any agent to be aware of. From questions like “Are we simply enforcing a norm of perfection where everyone looks the same?” (“Towards a More Inclusive Heaven”) and “If Mormon heaven includes eternal progression, how can it not include pain?” (“The Hole”), Harrison interrogates the very same belief she is on sabbatical from and takes time out of her life to provide readers with a vigorous questioning of beliefs that led her away from the comfortable middle of the Latter-day Saint tent to its very edge. I believe that any concerned Latter-day Saint who wants to be more like Jesus and improve their own circle of influence should engage with this book to learn from someone willing to discuss their faith journey out of that circle.

The best thing about listening to this podcast and reading this book at the same time comes as explained in a quote from Harrison’s “The Acorn and the Oak” essay: “We’re a better community when we aren’t just Mormons talking to Mormons.” Both texts broaden, a little, the conversation. Harrison’s text is one of a person exiting the Church, while the First Vision podcast is a historical look into someone creating that very same church she is exiting. Both provide a stark reminder and a sanguine release that has allowed this Mormon-adjacent-esque writer to appreciate roots and anticipate futures.

By Mette Ivie Harrison, PhD
384 pp. Front Porch Press

By Spencer W. McBride, PhD
6 eps. Church Historian’s Press | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I read The Empty Church in its Kindle format, offered for free as a promotion.

I listened to The First Vision in its Apple Podcasts format.

2019 Top Ten Books

I read almost 100 books this year, so it was rather difficult to pick my top ten reads. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books of the year, nor the ones I most enjoyed. Instead, they are books that each touched me in a different way. This year, thanks to the prodding of a dear friend, I’m adding more than a one-sentence review (see 2018 Top Ten Books).

Join me on my 2020 book adventures by following me on Twitter or Instagram, adding me as a friend on Facebook, and/or joining me on Goodreads.

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Cone’s serious and needed engagement of reading the lynching tree as a cross and connection between the Black experience and Christianity was a needed part of my studies this year. I read this, along with two other books on this list, for my sacrifice course, and the books are going to stay with me for a very long time. This one particularly has led me to consider lynching in my own culture’s/the cultural milieu I come from and the shadows that haunt my life because of that. No white person in America, with ancestry on this land, can escape the long shadow those trees cast, and this book is a good beginning in a journey to approach that shadow and realize what it has done, what it still does, and what it might do if not approached.

N. K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky

Jemisin’s work, I hope, will be a staple to these top books, especially since I have plans to do a top books of each month starting in January (since I read so much, and I don’t like picking ten at the end of the year). The Stone Sky was a superb ending to a trilogy that makes you rethink family, self, and the world around us. The other two novels in the trilogy, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, are also superb, so I encapsulate all of them in this one text in a hope to exude how important and necessary this work is to understanding humanity and the planet we call home.

Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

I listened to this book, read by the author, and it had a profound effect on me. Hedges argument is that war is a fundamental part of being human. A war correspondent and graduate of HDS, Hedges has a succinct style that allows one to understand the atrocities of and reasons for war. I encourage anyone hoping for world peace—asking for it in prayers or thoughts—to pick up this book and read it in the coming year and for the coming wars.

Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice

Halbertal is a key thinker in Jewish studies, and we all need to be reading and engaging more in Jewish works of literature in order to end the rise of anti-Semitism growing in our nationalistic-tending country. On Sacrifice explains to the reader the past of sacrificing to a deity and meditates on the present sacrificing for conceptualization that we have in religion. It’s a good text for anyone wondering why we do things for religions nowadays.

The Lais of Marie de France, translated by Claire M. Waters

I love Arthuriana of all types, and it was great to finally sit down and read some of the core texts. Written by an unknown Marie whose only signifier is that she is “of France” in a time when British aristocracy lived on both the island and the continent, Marie’s engagement with the Arthurian legends is uplifting and fun. Her Lais play on the wild side of humanity, while still being able to engage some of the core meanings of that same subject.

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

This book blew me away. It’s slow, but deliciously so. It’s personal, and wonderfully so. It’s grand, and epically so. The story of a diplomat sent from a small colony to engage with one of the largest empires in the known galaxy, Martine’s complexity of city life (she’s a Byzantine scholar and city planner, so it makes sense) and her nuance of imperial politics (again, Byzantine scholar) are engaging and fulfilling. I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera, What If It’s Us

It’s the story of two boys who randomly meet in New York and then attempt to find each other. I love Albertalli’s (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah on the Offbeat) and Silvera’s (They Both Die at the End and History Is All You Left Me) work, so it was great to see them work on these two characters together. I think I stayed up late into the night reading this one, which is not a normal occurrence for me. It made my little gay heart happy, which is also not a normal occurrence for me.

Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories

Time is queer, time is erotic, get used to it. Freeman’s text has been very influential in how I view, and am viewing, the relationship of temporality, texts, and queerness. It’s very poignant for someone like me, who loves the medieval and early modern periods, along with the contemporary periods, and wants to write on both, to read someone else who is working through this relationship theoretically. Lovely read.

Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive

I engaged with this text in a brief paper for my New Testament course this year, in which I looked at the theology of the resurrection—eschatology, essentially—and the death drive. It was a great paper where I thought through how Christ, like Edelman, says fuck the future. Edelman’s text is very important on a broarder scale though because his argument is one that is still prevalent today: queer people are not allowed engagement in society at large because society, ever so focused on the futurity of itself, sees that queer people, in general, cannot provide a future. Queerness is shunted to the side because it is engaged with the present and not the focus on “but what about the children” (i.e., “what about the future of our race/species/society/city/town/family”). It’s a very poignant read.

Margaret Atwood, The Testaments

Blessed be.