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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guest Post: The Reluctant Blogger: What It Thinks It’s Saying About Mormon Culture and What It's Actually Saying

The Segullah review of Ryan Rapier's The Reluctant Blogger describes it as "a peek inside the head of a modern, Mormon man." Let's examine that claim, shall we modern, Mormon men?

Please note this post is primarily about the novel as a cultural artifact (today's posts on Dawning of a Brighter Day and A Motley Vision discuss, respectively, the novel's successes and failures as a work of literature) and thus I will not be precious about avoiding discussion of spoilers. Not even a little. Check it out: the final sentence of the book is "It was my pleasure." I just ruined the whole book. That's how cavalier I'm going to be. Consider yourself warned.

Rapier (ruhPEER) seems to have a few clear points he wants to make about Mormon culture. Some of these lessons are plainly projected, eg, Mormons should relax regarding therapists and singles and gays. And we'll talk about those. But I want to start with protagonist Todd Landry's father whose dedication to always doing what he thinks the Righteous Mormon Man should do has a history of hurting members of his family---though he doesn't feel obliged to worry about this as clearly anyone hurt by his righteousness just isn't righteous enough themselves.

The question posed to LDS readers is how many of us feel the drive to say Yes! to every request, regardless of personal circumstance? Perhaps we've never ruined the Most Important Moment in teenager Todd's life in order to go clean up for Girls Camp, but the tension between serving at Church and being with family is real. And sometimes the "right answer" doesn't reflect what is actually most important. But leaping from one assumption (eg, always say yes) to the other (eg, keep that promise to roast marshmallows) can be difficult. It requires humility---maybe even humiliation---and you might not ever know if you made the right decision.

It doesn't help that Todd's father is a true Chicken Patriarch. When he unilaterally decides he and his wife will serve a full-time mission, he doesn't time his decision out of a disregard for his wife's opinion but out of a certainty that she does (or will) agree with him. She's super-righteous, after all, so if he's the decider (presider) and she's the agreer, there's nothing bullyish about it. They both equally decide to do what he decides to do. Of course they do.

When Todd's mother dies, things necessarily change. At the funeral, Todd writes in his blog:

"Of all my siblings, it was no coincidence I was the one sitting with him today. Together, we belong to a club [widowerhood] no one wants to join. Everything negative between us had been put aside. We needed each other. To me, this is what families are about." (213)

Which is a lovely sentiment, right?

But as soon as he regains his footing, Todd's father brushes off his shock and takes the counsel he gave every widower he ever counseled as a bishop or, in Todd's case, father. It is not good that man should be alone, he would say, so get married again. Asap.

Yet his speed in finding a new mate proves to be a mistake.


You see, Todd's father, for the first time in his life, admits he may have made a hasty (incorrect) decision. But committing that error has the side effect of freeing him up to finally spend time with his kids' families.

Contrast this story with Todd's friend Grant who, upon becoming bishop, warns the congregation that when his father was bishop, he lost connection to his family---to teenaged Grant. And no way Grant wants to become estranged to his children. As Grant speaks, the outgoing bishop nods happily in consent.

The cultural lesson? Family over Church without neglecting Church. It's a tricky line, but the novel navigates it pretty smoothly.

Next up: therapists and singles and gays.

Therapists. Todd's father hates therapists (Satan's substitute for the priesthood, dontchano) but Todd's designed-to-be-quotable explanation helps him come around: "Look, I know you view Dr. Schenk as an alternative to prayer. But I see him as my answer" (393).

Single people. Sucks to be single in the Church. Don't be a hater.

Gay people. This is one of the points the book wants to be known for: having a typical, active LDS man come out of the closet. Then we as readers are, like Todd, meant to confront this question (as posed by Bishop Grant): "What if Kevin's homosexuality isn't God’s test for Kevin? What if it's God’s test for us?" (356)

While hardly solving more theologically serious problems, these questions are a good place to start rethinking personal stances toward people who fit into this still uncomfortable-for-many category.

See, for all my complaints of the book, I must admit that the novel's moments of Mormon masculinity tend to ring true. Which is why its depiction of kneejerk attitudes toward homosexuality terrify me. I'm not a fan of the word homophobic (long story for another day), but its use in The Reluctant Blogger seems fitting to me. Consider this, from Todd:

"[The result of my irrationally-unkind-but-totally-reasonable reaction to Kevin's coming out] wasn't my fault. I'd never heard anything but fire and brimstone regarding homosexuality. God had supposedly destroyed cities over this stuff, and now my best friend was forcing me to be accepting of a behavior I'd been taught to abhor. I wasn't the bad guy here, yet I was the one being made to feel guilty. The whole situation felt upside down." (352)

Todd, as he decides that keeping his friend should be his priority, blames his original reaction (storm out, months of silent treatment) on being "raised to be homophobic ... just like you" (376).

What I find more remarkable/distressing than the novel telling me that Mormons are generally homophobic is its assumption that a Mormon audience will find this claim utterly unremarkable.

I was raised not with fire and brimstone but with silence. Which I suppose could be termed homophobia lite, but it genuinely never occurred to me that people I knew might be gay.

The first time I can remember the topic being a serious matter of discussion in Church was when Prop 8 arrived. I've since heard secondhand stories of round-'em-up-and-shoot-'em rants, but in my experience Prop 8 led to attempts (of variable success) to be kind to people of other opinions. Regardless of your take on the fabulous sin, preaching violence, hate, fire, brimstone is not a Christian path. It is not ours to judge. (And besides, I had thought it was generally agreed among the Saints that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality ...)

Anyway, I digress.

Let's skip ahead to the "Discussion Questions" at end of The Reluctant Blogger. Rapier tells me the publisher selected them from a list he generated, and they seem to track pretty well with the main cultural points I think the book is trying to raise. Leeriness of psychiatrists. The appropriateness of being friends with not-Mormon-enough Mormons. Grumpy hyper-righteous daddy issues. Gay Mormons. And although an attempt was made to ask them without bias, they tend to show their biases. Although the novel does not end with a list of morals-to-the-story, it is clearly trying to teach a certain amount of tolerance and charity that, it suggests, is demanded by our faith but missing from the faith as lived.

The novel itself thinks it is merely promoting obvious virtues. But by nature of what it promotes, it's making an even stronger argument that we are failing---and perhaps failing badly---in these areas.

Based on my experiences on MMM, I suppose we the readers here tend to be, if you will excuse an easily misunderstood term, "liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need."

But tell me, oh Saints: Are we as wicked as The Reluctant Blogger suggests? and are we as saveable as The Reluctant Blogger wants us to believe?


This post is part of a three-part series on The Reluctant Blogger. Visit the other two entries via the links below.

Dawning of a Brighter Day: a quick metareview and my own look at its many positive attributes
A Motley Vision: a novel with deep, structural flaws

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Theric Jepson writes about Mormon literature at A Motley Vision and other stuff at Thutopia. He co-edited Monsters & Mormons, recently finished his debut novel Byuck and can be blamed for other acts of wickedness as well. He lives in El Cerrito, California, with his wife.
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