Readers, this week’s query is a long one, but worth every word. Please stick with it:
Dear Ask Mormon Girl,
I really flipped for Joseph Smith when I met him in Fawn Brodie’s amazing biography, No Man Knows My History. I know there are Mormons who’ve left the church because of Brodie’s book, but I felt Smith — warts and all — was a modern prophet. He was funny, wonderfully funny, though no one seemed to talk about him that way, and even ironic and modern. I leapt at the chance to sign on as a writer for the 2007 PBS series on “The Mormons.” Towards the end of production, I was stopped in traffic by a head-splitting revelation of God’s presence. I slowly realized I was in the midst of a conversion experience. I was honored and completely panicked. But after some months of trying to put the shattering moment behind me, I decided Joseph was a prophet through whose authority I could believe in God.
As of last fall, I’ve been going to church in my local Mormon ward. I’ve attended the Gospel Principles class and recently, I’ve become an investigator with the missionaries. I have mostly lead the secular life of a free lance intellectual. The question of believing in God (or not) always seemed separate from the particulars of any one religion. I felt that my belief would grow and deepen as I got more involved in Mormon doctrine and the church. The ideas I knew like eternal progression were a very interesting variation on the general human aspiration to overcome death. I felt I would be able to negotiate other Mormon beliefs according to this humanist approach. But the Gospel Principles class and the missionaries’ teaching is full of what I consider “ideas” which are presented as “truths.” They are fine as “ideas,” but it makes me very anxious to consider them “truths.” The pre-existence and all that goes on there is an example of what I’m talking about. On the day we studied the war in the pre-existence, our teacher (a smart, witty young woman) illustrated the stand off between Christ and Satan by writing their names on the board. Then she wrote “2/3rds” under Christ and “1/3rd” under Satan to indicate the fractions standing for and against God among the spirits in heaven. We could have been studying Charlemagne’s troop count in his battle against the Moors. I asked a Mormon friend if I was supposed to accept the battle in the pre-existence literally, and she said, “Yes.”
I do not think I will ever be able to see the battle in the pre-existence literally. Yet I remain attracted to Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Joseph himself seems so imaginative. I know he also had a sense of the need for centralized authority. Would he say we have to take all the details of his theology as facts? If not, do you have any advice for how I can accept these kinds of literal teachings without stretching my credulity beyond belief?