Why I Stay

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Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons

Exploring the nuance and subtle contradictions within the progressive  LDS community.

September, 2011

SKU: 978-1-56085-213-1 Categories: , , Tags: , Author: Robert A. ReesProduct ID: 1512

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Mormonism is a community with two faces: progressive and conservative. This is true of nearly all faith traditions, which can be alternately open or defensive, traditional or innovative, accepting or judgmental. In the case of the LDS Church, it continues, a century after having shaken off the stigma of polygamy, three decades after embracing blacks as equals, and in the face of international growth, to wrestle with freeing itself from its past insularity. In doing so, it will find its place within the larger religious world and its accommodation to the challenges of modernism.

This all represents a challenge for individual members, especially for artists, scholars, and independent thinkers. The poet Robert Haas has made a distinction between religion, which is “communal worship centered on shared ideas of the sacred,” and spirituality, which “has to do with the individual soul’s struggle with its own meaning.” In this anthology, sixteen Latter-day Saints explain how they balance the demands of religion and spirituality in the modern Church. It brings to mind the example of LDS educator Lowell Bennion who offered the image of carrying water on both shoulders to explain the binary nature of balancing faith with reason, institutional commitment with individual integrity, obedience with love.

It is encouraging to discover so many Latter-day saints who, the editor writes, “neither stay with their faith blindly nor leave it rebelliously, but rather choose to struggle with challenges and strive for a more mature discipleship.” The contributors to this anthology are Lavina Fielding Anderson, Mary Bradford, William Bradshaw, Claudia L. Bushman, Fred Christensen, Lael Littke, Armand Mauss, Chase Peterson, Grethe Peterson, J. Frederick “Toby” Pingree, Gregory Prince, Robert A. Rees, Tom Rogers, William D. Russell, Cherry Bushman Silver, and Morris Thurston.

Robert A. Rees is a poet, literary critic, and scholar of Mormon studies who has taught at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz. Rees presently teaches Mormon Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is the author of many books and articles, including Fifteen American Authors before 1900, “Proving Contraries”: A Collection of Writings in Honor of Eugene England, and The Reader’s Book of Mormon. He is the producer of two public television documentaries: The Golden Angel over the City and Spires to the Sun: Rodia’s Towers in Watts.

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3 reviews for Why I Stay

  1. Harlow Clark, The Association for Mormon Letters

    Remember the sacrament gem? Back when we had Priesthood Meeting in the mornings (and Relief Society and Primary during the week) followed a little later by Sunday School–with the Sacrament passed to both Junior and Senior Sunday School, then Sacrament Meeting in the evening–someone would stand before the sacrament hymn and recite a scripture the congregation could think about during the sacrament.

    (I think it was the same verse all month because one week it was my turn and I recited what I had heard in Sacrament Meeting, proudly memorized. But of course the Junior Sunday School had a different gem, and I was too embarrassed to recite something else.)

    Maybe a year or two after Donna and I were married we were down in Provo on a visit and I noticed Ed Kimball, who had moved in next door about 15 years earlier, was bishop. Before the sacrament Bishop Kimball stood and said that after Jesus gave his Bread of Life sermon,

    “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66)

    I’m sure I had read that verse a few times but I hadn’t noticed it. It hadn’t moved me. Sometimes you have to take a gem out of its setting for it to shine.

    Several of the writers in Robert Rees’s new anthology “Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons” quote this passage, and Rees ends his essay, and therefore the book, with the passage, followed by a story about what it means to stay, the story of Levi Savage choosing to go with a handcart company leaving too late in the season, choosing to suffer their doom with them.

    That illustration of the scripture and of the book’s title is a nice rhetorical touch, but the scripture itself is worth looking at rhetorically. The Bread of Life sermon seems to me meant to drive disciples away, perhaps those who aren’t serious, who come to him just to get a free meal with no real belief or desire to believe, but Jesus only learns after they leave how it feels to have disciples leave, and he expresses his grief in a question.

    As Dennis Rasmussen says in “The Lord’s Question,” a question invites response, and Peter doesn’t give his response–his comfort–as something like, “There, there, don’t cry. We still love you.” He gives his response as a question, which invites a further response, both from Jesus and the readers.

    Several writers note that the book’s title, after the popular series at Sunstone theological Symposiums where the essays were first spoken, implies a question. Claudia L. Bushman says she doesn’t like the question, though she’s had reason to leave if she wants. “[W]hy should I leave? I love the Church. I don’t want to leave it” (31).

    Armand Mauss says the implied question contains or is part of another question: Why _should_ I stay? and finds it a bit troubling that the question seems so popular among “the most recent generations of Church members” (39).

    But Lael Littke says, “I Always Intended to Leave.” It is a remarkable essay, both for its engaging quality and its lack of omen. Rather than feeling ominous it feels a little like a cross between “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a joke. That is, you can predict a punch line, like, “maybe after X is finished I can finally leave.” The light touch allows her to explore some painful things without the exploration being painful, and the ending is much better than the punchline we can guess at but hope won’t be the last line.

    Karen Rosenbaum’s “How Frail a Foundation” could also sound ominous, but instead expresses the hope and yearning of one who has given place for the seed to be planted and is waiting for it to grow. And waiting, and waiting. And hoping.

    But the title implies something besides a question. Theology is not necessarily the same as belief, and going to a theological symposium is not necessarily the same as going to church or practicing the doctrines you’re exploring. Inviting a response a question invites people to say, because I belong here, because I find the Church good, “I Stay to Serve and Be Served,” as Molly Bennion puts it. The implied
    question gives respondents a chance to bear and bare testimony, as in Fred Christensen’s “A Surgeon’s Overwhelming Gratitude.”

    But there are those for whom scholarship is itself an act of worship. Thomas F. Rogers suggests this in the first essay, his declaration “It Satisfies My Restless Mind,” which I keep remembering as questing mind, and Mary Lythgoe Bradford’s “It Takes Many Villages” is a lovely portrait of a questing body and mind.

    Robert Rees’s closing essay also suggests scholarship as service, and Gregory R. Prince’s “I Trust the Data” talks about reading hundreds of thousands of pages in studying and writing about the Mormon priesthood and the life of David O. McKay. “The gospel of Christ is breathtaking,” says Chase Peterson (141).

    Several, including Cherry Bushman Silver and Grethe Peterson and Morris Thurston, talk about childhood or family life in the Church. “In order to stay somewhere you have to be there in the first place,” (53) Thurston says. “The prophet of my youth was Heber J. Grant and he lived in my ward,” says J. Frederick “Toby” Pingree (75).

    In counterpoint, “My Reasons and Motivations” by D. Jeff Burton talks about the need to fully explore our motivations, even their darker side, and William D. Russell’s piece suggests that many in The Community of Christ have a different attitude toward prophets. He talks about revelations and preaching, but isn’t nearly as taken with the idea of a charismatic prophet as many in the LDS Church are. The contrast is most interesting.

    And finally I found Lavina Fielding Anderson’s “A Coin Balanced on Its Rim” as poignant as I thought it would be, and was surprised by the sense of loss in Charlotte England’s “My Leaps of Faith.” “Through this and other experiences I was able to work my way out of the deep, dark hole I was in after losing Gene and start creating the new life that I would live without my dear Gene” (175).

    The pictures that grace several of the essays, related thematically to the essays, remind me of the dignity of the black and white photograph.

    This is the kind of book that you put down as you finish an essay, saying, “I finished that essay and it’s only another mile till my stop,” then you pick it up again, saying, “I’ve got a whole mile. I might as well start the next one.”

    It’s also a fine book to share.

  2. Blair Hodges, Maxwell Institute

    While the Church continues to report general growth, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently called attention to the tragic losses the Church sustains whenever someone walks away. He not only expressed love for people who leave the Church and affirmed their agency and good faith; he also directly appealed to those who wonder if they should go: “If you are tempted to give up: Stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here.” This plea resonates with the central message of Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons, a collection of personal essays published by Signature Books. The twenty contributors—9 women and 11 men, an assortment of PhDs, JDs, MBAs, etc.—answer the title’s question in their own way in hopes that their experiences might help others carry on. Despite the tally of academic credentials, most of the essays are apologetic and personal in tone; testimonies.

    Robert A. Rees, the collection’s editor, selected essays originally presented at the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah, between 2003 and 2010. Rees’s selections signal the book’s greatest strength: the various perspectives show that there are many reasons people consider leaving and different reasons people stay. For some, leaving has never been a real consideration, while others wrestle with the possibility occasionally or on a regular basis. Each of them, in their own way, both echo and exemplify President Uchtdorf’s call: “Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.”

    William Bradshaw, an emeritus biology professor at Brigham Young University, reflects on his fading certainty: “Now I find myself in the very paradoxical state of being less sure about a whole lot of things, but having greater faith” (29). Former professor of American studies at Columbia University Claudia Bushman insists, “My question is not why I stay in the Church, but why should I leave? I love the Church. I don’t want to leave it” (31). Armand Mauss, emeritus professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University reflects “I do not experience these [things] as nagging doubts or problems but rather as challenges. I have come to understand that living indefinitely with ambiguity is a sign of intellectual maturity, not weakness” (41). Acclaimed author Lael Littke writes of her ongoing intention to leave a church which she felt stifled her possibilities as a woman, but “there was always another roadshow to write or fun lesson to teach or party to go to with the delightful friends we met in our various wards” (137). But she’s also realized “the real reason I stay is because of a belief system I am converted to. I love the gospel of Jesus Christ” (139). Editor and author Lavina Fielding Anderson reflects on her ongoing activity in the Church despite being formally excommunicated in 1993. Why continue to attend weekly for decades? “Although I am no longer a Church member, I am still a Mormon. I want to be in the right place when the time comes for our paths to rejoin” (89). May they rejoin soon.

    Anderson and her fellow contributors stay because they hope to become better even as the Church becomes better. “If these are your desires,” President Uchtdorf said, “then regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us!”

  3. Robert Rees

    Sunstone has had a recurring theme over the past 25 years or so titled Why I Stay. Robert Rees collected essays from 20 people that have answered this question over the years. As I thought of the question, I think my answer would mirror Claudia Bushman. From page 31:

    “I don’t want to explore why I stay in the Church. I just don’t like that question. Of course I have some pretty horrific experiences that would have persuaded many to leave. I could give a very salty talk about putdowns I have experienced and insults I have borne. I have been publicly and privately humiliated on several occasions….But I have forgiven those perpetrators. I cannot say that I have forgiven the slights. Instead I have adopted the style of various Church leaders I have known. They may forgive, but they never forget.”

    Armaund Mauss says on page 39:

    “I find the question of why I stay with the Church to be peculiar. No one asks me why I stay with my family or with my nation, both of which are periodically stressful and no less voluntary than my relationship to the church.”

    There are some fantastic stories in this book. Greg Prince says that the data is there for him to stay, and he shared some interesting perspectives: sometimes “Revelation Flows Up.” From page 97:

    “Trickle-up revelation is arguably the most important force of revelation shaping the day-to-day church in which we live. If you doubt that statement, consider the Relief Society, Mutual Improvement, Sunday School, Primary, Welfare, Genealogy (Family History), and Young Adult programs all began as grass-roots initiatives on the part of Church members, and were then embraced by the central Church. This means that phrases such as “magnifying one’s calling”, “Men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness”, and “be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a good work. And out of small things proceedeth forth that which is great”, are not platitudes, but a real call to action. I have been a first-hand witness and participant in the birth of the Young Adult program in Southern California in the mid-1970’s and a first-hand witness of Lester Bush’s landmark on blacks and the priesthood in the mid-1970s. A Church that not only allows, but expects its members to assist in continual transformation by placing their unique gifts at the altar has my vote.”

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