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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Why I Love Sunstone 

by Kristine
The other day, over at that other blog, Sunstone was getting its quarterly flogging. I've reread my responses on that thread, and it strikes me that I was not my usual cool-as-a-cucumber (ha!) self. I'm irrationally defensive of Sunstone and Dialogue and Exponent II and all of those independent Mormon publications that some people think are soooo two decades ago. The reason is simple, really: Sunstone saved my life.

I grew up in a family that, while open to more questions than some LDS families, was essentially quite conservative. Yes, the bishop might have some wacky ideas (he was my dad, after all!), or the Primary teacher might have gotten a couple of historical details wrong, but that was no reason to rock the boat. It was fun to read more books about Mormonism than anybody, and to occasionally feel smug in one's superior knowledge, but we did not Question Authority or do anything else that might have been suggested by 60s bumper stickers. If I had a nickel for every Family Home Evening lesson on obedience...

After I graduated from college, I decided to go on a mission. I felt very strongly directed to go, and I'm not one who usually gets more than suggestions in answer to prayers, so I went, even though I wanted to go to graduate school instead. To make a long, private story short and semi-public, my mission was the worst two months of my life. I learned first-hand, and in very painful ways, that leaders make mistakes, that sometimes a bureaucracy is just a bureaucracy, and that it is possible for individuals to slip between the cogs of the institutional machinery and have their spirits crushed. When I got home, I was as lost as I've ever been--the cozy world of inspired church leaders and their wise counsel felt lost to me; a world without the church (which would also mean without my family, most of my friends, etc.) seemed uninhabitable. I took 200 sleeping pills.

Fortunately (I think), somebody noticed me passed out in my car and got me to a hospital. Even more fortunately, I spent some time recuperating in my great aunt Elizabeth's guest room, which had bookshelves lined with old issues of Sunstone and Dialogue. I spent days and days reading about how people had grappled with the same questions I had, how they had made peace (and not) with questions of institutional authority, priesthood, and revelation. I got to know people who seemed more like me than many of the people I knew in the wards where I'd lived; I realized that I was not so painfully unique after all. I learned that the church is not a monolithic, unchanging edifice, but that it is built and rebuilt with human hands and human minds trying hard to discern God's will (with varying success). I had sort of understood that on an intellectual, theoretical level, but when I needed it translated to an emotional and personal level, I *really* needed to read "Pillars of My Faith" and Gene England's essays and a reexamination of the seagull story (don't ask me why that one mattered--it really did somehow!). Slowly, I started to believe that there could be a recognizably Mormon world that had room for me in it.

It's not so much that Sunstone and Dialogue and Exponent II are needed to perform such dramatic therapeutic function very often; I hope they're not! But in a church with no "Reform" or "Conservative" or "Renewal" or even "Protestant" branches to speak of, and a church divided by geography so that true fellowship occurs mostly by fortunate accidents of residence, we need some connections for people who feel themselves, for whatever reasons, on the margins. We need a place for scholars (and wannabes) whose work asks uncorrelatable questions to publish their work and have it challenged by people who won't immediately and exclusively challenge their faithfulness instead of their data and their conclusions. We need a place for people who are working their way out of the church to find comfort and solace so that they can eventually leave Mormonism without bitterness.
Does it get repetitive sometimes? Of course--what else could be expected in a church which is by its nature so slow to change (and populated by humans, whose nature seems *never* to change much!)? Does every piece pass scholarly muster? Of course not! But then again, neither does every piece in _Social Text_ (wink if you're old enough to get the joke). Is the Sunstone/Dialogue/Exponent II crowd smug and self-congratulatory at times? Of course--everybody wants to be in the in-crowd sometimes, and crow about it. Yes, the crowing is a little shallow and adolescent, but sometimes we all have to let our inner 7th-grader out for air, right?

Like Nate, I'd love to see Mormon Studies grow, and be peer-reviewed and respectable. I'd like there to be something new and exotic in every issue. I'd like there to be new questions and exhilarating new methodologies. I would like the 3 people on the planet who are smarter than Nate Oman to write regularly so he can be served too. But I'm just dumb enough not to mind reading some things over and over, in slightly different voices--Mormonism is (among other things) a community of belief and ideas and it can exist only in the form of flawed mortals trying to connect their own puny ideas with something bigger. Sometimes the so-called intellectuals (and even the real ones) look just as goofy trying to do that as the deacons bearing their testimonies for the first time and trying really hard to keep their voices from cracking. What's not to love about that?!
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