Spirit 3: the Holy Books

Humans need stories. We have always needed stories. And stories can take many forms, from fables to myths to fairy tales.

I could tell a bedtime story to my children this evening, something about a llama prince in love with a crab princess, and they would laugh and smile, and that story would exist for that moment only, then forever be forgotten. Or perhaps I could tell them this story every night, until it becomes an unforgettable part of their childhoods, something they remember forever, and then they could re-tell it to their own children, and it could take on a form of its own as they alter the details and change it just so. Or I could even write it down, with or without pictures, and then it becomes more permanent, something read and re-told exactly as I wanted it, and then in future generations, it is re-interpreted, given its own life by those who read it. And if I published this story, well, it takes on a life of its own.

I’m much more likely to tell my kids a story I already know. The Three Little Pigs, perhaps. Someone made that up along the way and it became an American staple, this story of pigs being pursued by wolves. The basic details stay the same: houses of straw and stick and brick, but many parts change. Sometimes the pigs have a mother. Sometimes the pigs are eaten by the wolf. Sometimes the wolf is scared away and other times he falls into a boiling pot down the chimney. The story exists in the American consciousness, it is given life by a shared psychic energy, an astral reverence among millions of people. And it all depends on which version is used.

But then imagine they believed the 3 Little Pigs was true, based on real events…

Even stories that are written down are interpreted and absorbed differently by the public. Think of the world’s most famous works, told and retold and retold again. The Wizard of OzRomeo and Juliet. Moby DickLittle Women. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Manchurian Candidate. The Handmaid’s Tale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huckleberry Finn. Pride and Prejudice. And even more recent works: Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey. These stories are revered, held sacred, they are frozen in time and reinterpreted, examined and taught in classrooms, sometimes they are even forbidden. They’ve taken on a life of their own. Humans need these stories to latch on to. They give us a shared reality, something to think over and whisper about. But we still see them as fiction–what if these were believed to be real, any one of them?

To make it even more complex, humans tell stories frequently about real events and other humans. But the stories change in the retelling… they take on new forms as events shift. Minor characters become major, certain things get forgotten, and we remember events as they were told to us, taught to us. They become fiction in the retelling, yet we often believe them as fact.

And then there is the greatest story ever told, the long epic of the Bible. Some humans, long long ago, gathered stories and put them in a book, and that book came to be revered as mythological canon, as human historical events. The book told of the creation of earth and man, it conjured a loving god who would destroy civilization when crossed wrong. It told of angels and devils, floods and famines, plagues and enslaved races. The book outlines strict laws, harsh commandments, and the laws of god that will lead to salvation if followed or damnation if set aside. And then there is a savior, the son of god himself, who saves all mankind and dies for their sins. Miracles abound for those who follow the rules. This book has shaped the human consciousness for centuries. Wars have been waged in its name, people put to death over it, entire races subjugated or even wiped out in genocide by those who profess to follow it. It’s been rewritten, reinterpreted, and reissued millions of times. It’s stronger than government, than family bonds, than human history. It is sheer power. While the other mythologies of gods have faded away (Norse and Egyptian and Celtic and so many more), the Bible has cemented its place firmly. There are around 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 3 billion of them believe in the Bible in some form or another. Something around 40 per cent of human revere this historical book and interpret it as fact, in some form or another. But there are another 2 billion or so who identify as Muslim and believe in different books and mythologies. Another 500 million or so lean toward Buddhism, and another 900 million toward Hinduism. And every one of them can be divided down and down into different sects and branches. There are thousands of ways to be a Christian, for example, from Methodist to Lutheran to Amish to Catholic. And they all, every one of these groups, say they have it right.

And one of the newest and smallest Christian groups is the one I was born into. Mormonism. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, introduced multiple new books of scripture, words on pages that would take on their own life in the human consciousness. The Book of Mormon (a supposed record of the ancient Americans), Doctrine and Covenants (supposed revelations given to Smith from God), and the Pearl of Great Price (a supposed record of the words of Abraham, Moses, and others). Smith and the Mormons reinterpreted all the rules, put a new spin on it, and said they had everything correct and the others didn’t.

As of 2019, there are an estimated 15 million Mormons on the earth, though clearly not so many active in the faith. An astounding number, it seems, until one does the math. 15 million out of 7.5 billion. Mormons make up… ready? 0.002 per cent of the world’s population. Not even half of one per cent. Not even half of a half of one per cent.

These books, these religious stories, held such a sway over my life, such a thick and heady force they were in my brain, that they shaped my entire psychology, biology, and spirituality for the first three decades of my life. It was only at age 32 when I allowed my doubts to take form and I chose to step away. As with all things, I look back at the things I used to believe and my brain curdles. I’m an educated man, yet I believed in two humans in a garden who were immortal until they ate an apple after being tempted by a snake; the appearances of angels with swords who destroyed cities; an entire planet wiped out by flood waters except for one man and his family who put two of every land animal on one boat; about the righteous white tribe conquering the evil dark tribe; about unseen buried golden plates; about immaculate conception and one man bearing the sins of billions. While I respect the rights of others to believe in their mythos, I see these events as nothing more than stories now. Powerful stories, yes, but not powerful enough to make me sacrifice my own happiness.

I love telling stories. I love reading stories. I love sharing stories with my children. But I will never again teach them that fiction is fact, and I will never place stories above their well-being and my own.

Monuments

23559557_10159718994260061_2434456588157797670_n

I’m a product of everything that has come before me. Small and large, historical and irrelevant. I’m a composite of human history, events and decisions that shaped my destiny for thousands of years before I was ever conceived on this small planet. Political revolutions, marriages, tragic deaths, wars, the founding and dissolutions of nations.

Sheri (my younger sibling, and the other gay member of my family) and I (a gay father of two sons from Utah) pulled through the small town of Sharon, Vermont, watching for the sign announcing the birthplace of Joseph Smith. It felt strange for the two of us, both no longer affiliated with the Mormon church, to be stopping here. We were road-tripping through Vermont, however, headed from Brattleboro to Burlington, and when would I ever be near Sharon again.

We drove past small farm houses and a few small local businesses. This was clearly a small community. (A quick Google search confirmed that the town population was 1500). The season, in mid-November, was shifting from fall to winter, swiftly. The leaves were no longer changing, already shifted to a deep brown and most of them on the ground, just a few left clinging to barren branches. A breeze blew outside the windows, stark and biting, over the small rolling hills outside. It was lovely.

Finally, we found the turn to the homestead where the prophet Joseph had been born. How well I recalled the narrative. Toward the end of his short life, Joseph Smith had released an official account of his life from his perspective, in which he recalled growing up with hard-working parents on a farm and having been born in Sharon, in Windsor County, Vermont. The family had moved when he was an infant, and had gone on to New York, where, in Joseph’s adolescence, he encountered a period of religious revival, and he had to decide which church to join. According to his account, he prayed for truth, and was visited by God and Jesus Christ themselves, in glowing, floating, resurrected bodies, and they told him to join none of the churches and instead to start his own. I’d practically memorized this account as a young Mormon missionary 20 years before. As we drove through Sharon, I wondered how differently my life would have been, over a century later, if Joseph’s parents had stayed in this small town instead of moving. Would there ever have been a Mormon Church if they stayed?

We pulled down the large driveway toward the homestead. There was a small branch of the Mormon Church there, a cemetery of ancient graves (with no names that I recognized), a home (where the man who managed the estate lived), and a small visitor’s center. I could see Christmas lights wound around the trees of the grounds, not lit up, and realized they likely did a local Nativity scene here at Christmas time. Pleasant gospel music played over the speakers. I immediately thought of other Church history sites I had visited, most prominently Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where it felt the same: manicured lawns, Christmas lights, church music.

Back behind the center was a large monument to Joseph, a giant pointed structure towering into the sky, and a sign near it talked about how the monument had been built out of one single stone. Plaques adorning it told the story of Joseph, and golden writing wound around it quoted James 1:5, the scripture that inspired Joseph to pray for God’s revelations in the first place. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…”

“It looks a lot like a penis,” Sheri whispered, though no one was around to hear.

“Oh yes. Men and their phallic architecture,” I laughed back, and we looked around. There was a trail off to the side, brown and winding through the woods, that led to the site of the Solomon Mack homestead; Mack was a Revolutionary War veteran who’d lived in the area. It was a mile hike, but it was far too cold to venture into the woods. Just the day before, Sheri and I had visited a similar site in New Hampshire where a woman named Madame Sherri had built a “castle” in the woods, entertaining there for decades before the place burned down.

Sheri and I stood facing the woods. “Sometimes I wonder what future generations will think. Whose names will they choose to remember. What markers and monuments will be placed from our times. Or will it all just be ruins and dust, leading archaeologists to dig up our remains and wonder who we were.” We contemplated that for a bit before going into the visitor’s center.

Inside, we were greeted by Elder Abbot, a nice man from central Utah who was serving an 18 month mission in Sharon, greeting visitors. He told us the local branch of the church had about 80 active members in a 60 mile radius. “The church isn’t that strong in this area, but we are sure working on it!” He told us that in the summer and around Christmastime, the center gets hundreds of visitors daily, but in the off-seasons, only a few per day. “Church members don’t really come here. Honestly, there isn’t a lot of relevance to this place for us. Joseph was only born here. Nothing else momentous happened.”

Elder Abbot led us into the central room, where we saw a large statue of Joseph, a library of church books in glass casings, and giant pictures of Jesus Christ and Thomas Monson, the current Mormon prophet. We looked around for a bit, done after a couple of minutes.

“Can I take your picture in front of the statue?”

Sheri and I, still bundled up in our winter gear, sat next to each other, giving small smiles for the picture. When he handed it back, I zoomed in on our faces, our expressions clearly underwhelmed. Behind us were tributes to Christ, Smith, and Monson, the three men (all white, of course) that our birth family most revered. They were still looking over our shoulders, promising to judge our lifestyle choices in a weird way.

We walked out, thanking Elder Abbot with a handshake, and got back in the car. “Hey, remember that time the two gay ex-Mormons went to the birthplace of the founder of Mormonism, and they were totally bored?”

We laughed together, driving out of Sharon, but my thoughts turned to origins and long-term decisions, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my actions now meant for generations down the line. Then I clicked open my phone and realized the monument to Joseph was a Pokemon gym and I laughed even harder.

the Origin of My Species

MA48727

“B-9! The tumor is benign! B-9!”

I stood in the background among the trees, feeling awkward as the dozens of family members searched their small paper cards for the number that will give them the coveted Bingo, oversized red blotters in their hands, filled with dripping red ink.

“I-23! I act 23! I-23!”

The campsite is as beautiful as I remember it, though it’s been years since I have been here. Large luscious pine trees, thick foliage in varying shades of green, wildflowers and pussy willows, a gentle cool breeze, rich dark chocolate soil. The area is covered with trailers and tents. A campfire smokes and pops off to one side. Card tables littered with playing cards, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and aluminum soda cans. Island Park, Idaho holds powerful memories of my childhood, my origins.

“B-4! B-4 this, we had lunch! B-4!”

I have been out of the closet for nearly five years now, yet this is my first time seeing some of these family members since my grandmother’s death, over five years ago. I look around the room and think of the extension of relations. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; aunts, uncles, cousins with their spouses and kids; grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their kids and spouses and grandkids. I don’t recognize about a fifth of the people here and have no idea how I am related to them.

“O-68! Oh, to have an IQ over 68! O-68!”

My mom looks up and gives me another small wave. She’s happy to see me, I know. She’s happiest when surrounded by family and chaos, and here there is that multiplied by one thousand. A few of my sisters give me similar waves, and they are happy to see me too. But no one gets up. I arrived during Bingo, after all. Hugs will have to come later.

“N-32! ‘n my heart, I’m still 32! N-32!”

I close my eyes for a moment and just… feel. There is a growing panic in my insides, an old familiar fight or flight response. I grew up in this environment, this chaotic loving family, hidden in plain sight. A gay kid who pretended to be straight for a few decades. Being among them again after all this time, it brings back those old familiar panicked feelings, that sense of otherness, of being different. I haven’t felt like this in years.

“I-16! I’m a good Mormon, and I don’t date til I’m 16! I-16!”

Someone calls out Bingo and they get to choose a prize: either a bottle of Diet Coke or a bag of Licorice, and then the next round is announced, a version of Bingo where you have to create a giant X on the card. I take a seat in a dusty camp chair toward the back as the cards are cleared and the new game begins. A handsome young man sits next to me and it takes me several seconds to realize it is one of my cousin’s sons, a kid I haven’t seen in probably six years, when he was 12. He’s holding a book in his hand, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

He extends a hand. “I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Casey.”

I smile and shake his hand, such a Mormon thing to do, something I still do in my interactions, shake hands when you first see someone. “I’m Chad.”

He leans back in his chair. “I’m reading the most wonderful book.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

The Bingo competition begins again. “N-37! ‘n 37 seconds, I’ll kiss my wife! N-37!”

He smiles and holds the book up. “It’s about a man who fell in the paths of sin. He struggled with pornography and masturbation, and eventually had sex outside of marriage. He wrote this book about his repentance process, how he obtained forgiveness from the Lord, and made his way back to the church. It contains lots of quotes from the modern prophets.”

I feign interest, looking at the book briefly. “It sounds very serious.”

“Well, yes. But I’m leaving on my mission to the Phillipines in a few weeks, and I want to read everything I can to be prepared. I only get two years as a missionary to bring souls to Christ.”

I smile, and we fall into a comfortable silence as the Bingo game continues. This kid, that was me, back in the late-1990s. Carrying my scriptures around with me constantly, keeping a constant prayer in my heart, knowing that if I worked at it hard enough, God would take away my attraction to men. I was pure, innocent. I had no idea how the world worked, what was out there. I was caught up in this simple god-fearing existence, oblivious to how much pain I was in. Two years spent completely dedicated to God while I was a missionary in the eastern United States, and I hadn’t come one lick closer to a cure.

I stood up and patted Casey on the shoulder briefly. “Congratulations, man. You’re going to be an amazing missionary.”

He thanked me as I walked away, back through the trees to the dusty trail where I’d parked my car. No one noticed me leaving, they were all focused on their Bingo cards.

“B-1! BYU is number 1! B-1!”

A few hours later, after a cup of coffee and a long walk in the glorious flowery fields near the camping lot, I returned. I had missed the family frying pan toss, the pinochle tournament, the talent show, the family crossword, birdhouse making, and horseshoes.

The next several hours were filled with conversations, awkwardness, hugs, rolled eyes, and laughter.

“Whose kid took the keys to my motorized wheelchair! Everyone stop what you are doing, the keys to my motorized wheelchair are missing! Who took them! Oh, never mind, they are here, in my bra.”

“Sorry for getting sweat on you during our hug! I guess I have become the sweaty one in the family!”

“Oh, my life is the same as ever. No one cares enough to even ask how I’m doing, so I’ll just sit back here and pretend like everything is fine. But thanks for asking.”

“Did you hear that Darrel told one of his kids to kick one of Kim’s kids in the balls because he thinks Kim is a terrible mother? Can you believe him!”

“I just want you to know that I think being gay is completely cool. I mean, I totally support gay marriage. It’s about time. And if anyone says anything against it, I’ll tell them what I think.”

“Did you hear about Darrel? I think he’s addicted to pain pills. Why else would he have said that?”

“Chad! I have a gay friend I want to set you up with. He lives a few hundred miles from you, but he’s a total sweetheart. Can I set you up?”

“Did you hear about Darrel and Kim?”

______________________________________

The next day, I head over to the campsite early and sit in the early morning next to a crackling fire. Most everyone is still asleep, except a few cousins and their kids making their way around camp in various tasks. I don’t talk to anyone, and I think about where I’ve come from, and all the memories I have here. I miss my grandparents suddenly, both gone for years, and I wonder how would feel about this expanse of dozens and dozens of lives that sprang from their simple, post-Depression love story.

In time, pancakes are being flipped and donuts are being fried. It’s a few more hours before the giant family potluck begins and I observe the spread of food, the same heaping dishes that I grew up devouring. Sugared cheese balls, potato chips, licorice, candied popcorn, instant potatoes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream and melted cheese, a heaping sugared ham. I take a step back and look at the table. There is one small bowl of green salad, ice berg lettuce with carrot shavings, a few bowls of fruit mixed in with whipped cream, and one big bowl of watermelon. Giant tubs of sugary lemonade at the end.

This… this is how I ate growing up. This is what was available. Grab as much as you can, then get more, then more. Huge meals every meal with snacks in between.

Soon the family raffle begins, a four hour long event where they call one number at a time, corresponding to a prize. Tickets are 25 cents each; some people buy five dollars worth, others buy five hundred dollars worth.

“Next up is a hand-crafted quilt! Number 252, who has number 252?”

I look around at the crowd, groupings of families sitting in lawn chairs, picking their plates clean. Kids burying themselves in dirt, babies being rocked by their mothers, men drifting off to sleep, women fanning themselves with paper plates. Every one of them will stay until every last number has been called.

The next morning, as I drive away, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, that I was raised in this insane and incredible family, an entire childhood that revolved around gossip, food, faith, and love.