I’m no longer of the opinion that religion matters because it makes life meaningful. Religion, it seems to me, makes meaning rather the way breathing makes CO2: as leavings, as tailings. That’s fine. Meaning may follow, but it’s meant to be exhaled. If you hold your breath, you’ll suffocate.
Religion practices life, not the meaning of life.
Joy and meaning may comet-tail, but if you aim for them, you’re lost. Aimed at, they’re a mirage. But give yourself over to caring for the world and they’ll attend, full-bodied, your periphery. They’ll hover like a supernumerary halo you’ll never quite clearly see. Religion ends up saving us for joy and meaning as much by delivering us from them as by battening us to them.
This respiratory theory of meaning has an appeal, but it abuts nihilism: here, meaning isn’t originally etched into the walls of the world’s elemental heart but constantly exhaled from the lungs of all the fragile little things that circulate through it. The whole thing, like flirting, is so delicate and oblique! Who can stand it!
Some may shy from it, but this propinquity to nihilism is what appeals to me about The Book of Mormon Girl.
You remember those Book of Mormon stories that your teacher told to you? You believed them. And Joanna Brooks did. And me too. We breathed them in like a fish would water.
But you can only hold your breath for so long. Then, sooner or later, to keep living, you, like Brooks, will have to trust God and say: “I’m not the same kind of Mormon girl I was when I was seven, eight, or eighteen years old. I am not an orthodox Mormon woman like my mother” (167/199).
And, then, however many its many problems, if you’re fortunate, you’ll also still exclaim: but “I am an unorthodox Mormon woman with a fierce and hungry faith” (167/199).
Though, of course, life wends far more circuitously than just this.
Brooks asks: “What if the story is more complicated than it seemed? What if it was not so easy to trace the hand of God in history?” (133/199) The story is always more complicated. Because the story is not even the thing and the thing is a very, exceedingly complicated body, all of whose parts are moving.
(I even doubt, in the end, how orthodox my own very orthodox mother has managed, in her fierce and hungry faith, to be. As if her life, unlike mine, were simple?)
We get tangled up in the stories life expels as we breathe through it, and these stories can keep us warm at night and help bundle one life into another, but they’re not the life itself. Choosing light and life will always, in the end, mean “placing my trust in a God bigger than doctrine” (141/199).
Is there a name big enough for God? (No.) Is God a name big enough for the world? (No.)
What’s your name? Moses asks God.
I am who I am! God replies.
What’s the world’s name? What’s the world’s story? What does the world mean?
“The world has no name, he said. The names of the cerros and the sierras and the deserts exist only on maps. We name them that we do not lose our way. Yet it was because the way was lost to us already that we have made those names. The world cannot be lost. We are the ones. And it is because these names and these coordinates are our own naming that they cannot save us. That they cannot find for us the way again.” (The Crossing, 387)
So then what? Have we lost the way? Is the world lost to us?
The world cannot be lost. But holding our breath, we’re dying.
“He said that what men do not understand is that what the dead have quit is itself no world but is only the picture of the world in men’s hearts. He said that the world cannot be quit for it is eternal in whatever form as are all things within it. In those faces that shall now be forever nameless among their outworn chattels there is writ a message that can never be spoken because time would always slay the messenger before he could ever arrive.” (The Crossing, 413)
You cannot quit the world. It is eternal. But religion just might help speed the death of that picture of the world you carry in your heart. Let that picture go. Life will spin another picture. And another. And another.
“There is no way forward,” Brooks says, “but to tell our whole story. Not the made for television version, but the entire very imperfect story” (192/199).
Life is what keeps the story’s perfection at bay so that we have to keep telling it. Life is what keeps pressing the story back to the world’s edges, blowing it like glass, larger and larger and thinner and thinner until instead of just seeing the story we see through it.
You’ve done it once. Good for you.
Don’t stop now. Tell the story again.
I’m no longer the orthodox Mormon I used to be.
Soon enough I’ll no longer be the un-orthodox one either.
(Unstuck from the former, I certainly don’t want to be stuck in the latter.)
But, God willing, the life pushing through me will be fierce and hungry.
Joanna Brooks, The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press, 2012).
Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (Knopf, 2009).