Stories Mormons (and ExMormons) Tell…Narrative and Testimony
In my last article, I wrote about John Dehlin’s talk at the Mormonism and the Internet conference held at Utah Valley University. I wrote that I would get to writing a post about Rosemary Avance’s talk, which came last (but not least) of the three speakers. In the following video, Rosemary begins at 52:33.
Depending on the kinds of articles you may have read regarding Mormon topics, Rosemary’s presentation, about Mormon (de)conversion narratives in on and off-line worlds, might seem familiar. It did for me.
What I immediately connected Rosemary’s presentation to was Seth Payne’s Study of the Ex-Mormon Narrative, which was also covered in an episode of Mormon Expression podcast and about which I wrote as well here. So you can read my thoughts there.
But what about Rosemary’s presentation?
After explaining discussing the basics of her project, and the basics of the different groups she researched — between “the Path” which probably analogizes most closely to a forum like Stay LDS, as opposed to “the Escape,” which I would guess is Recovery from Mormonism — she discusses the foundational theories behind her approach and perspective at 1:04:30. She says:
…I take a social constructivist perspective to religious identity…which is to say there is nothing such as “Mormonism” out there; Mormonism as an identity is something that is created by interaction, by ritual, by participation. So praxis creates Mormon identity. The things that you say about what it means to be Mormon create the idea of Mormonism…that’s not to say that there is no such thing as the church, because obviously there is a church, but it’s just to say that when you want to understand what it means to be Mormon, then you need to ask people, and the stories that they tell construct Mormonism as they tell those stories…
I keep hearing things like this, but I don’t think I fully believe it. I still feel that there is a Mormonism outside of what people say it is…and I use that idea of Mormonism as a benchmark to measure others’ ideas of Mormonism against.
Nevertheless, Avance’s conclusions were also intriguing (at 1:13:10):
…So among faithful Mormons, testimony serves a ritual function…creating and maintaining religious identity…in offering testimony, testimony is created. By saying, “I know the church to be true,” people come into that knowledge of knowing the church to be true…and into an obligation to the church, and into the ritual community that is the church. So what do we make of deconversion stories? I’m arguing that questioning and former Mormons are engaging in this ritual of sharing, and it binds them in a spiritual community, and it also imagines a totalizing worldview similarly to Mormonism…and to them, this worldview is predicated on logic and rationality…they say, rather than emotion, faith…is predicated on rationality and logic, but still they discursively mirror the same experience, including the affective portion of that experience when they give their testimonies…
…You can make the argument as people disaffect from the church that [there is erosion of religious impulses], but this isn’t the erosion of the impulse for communion and for fellowship…it’s a different manifestation of the impulse….
The emphasis on logic and rationality is something that has struck me about many secular and atheist (often post-religious communities). The twist in Mormon deconversion narratives that Rosemary points out is how so often this conversion to logic and rationality does hinge on a big affective experience — finding out a crucial fact or learning about a major unsavory event. The creation of these new narratives with their new totalizing worldviews also provides good insights into why “big tent” movements for those who undergo faith crises in Mormonism don’t seem to work so well: it’s not as if all post, former, ex-, disaffected or unorthodox Mormons are experiencing the same sort of faith transition…rather, it could be that as people drift away from orthodox Mormonism, they drift away in different directions from each other…so I could probably identify any given anonymous comment as being a better fit at Mormon Matters or StayLDS, and I could identify any given anonymous comment as being a better fit at RfM…and certainly, I would never confuse the two, because the two comments are bound to be very different.