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Stories Mormons (and ExMormons) Tell…Narrative and Testimony

May 7, 2012

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.

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4 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    I find the whole “I left the church because I started focusing on logic and rationality” theme to be rather pompous and self-serving.

    Especially when it’s rather apparent the people are being awfully selective in what they apply this “logic” to.

  2. Seth,

    but I guess that’s the point. No more self-serving and pompous than any other sort of testimony. I guess the problem is when people don’t realize that they are really just doing the same thing, for a different team.

    • Victoria permalink

      I disagree. I find i only need to commune with other exmormons when i have to spend a significant amount of time with my very mormon family. Weddings, baptisms, etc.
      I want to be there to show love for my family, but the whole “what a shame you’ll never obtain your exaltation” talk to be mind numbingly annoying. I connect with othe exmormons just to try to find ways to stay bonded to my family, apart from religion. The larger problem is that mormons identify as mormons before they identify as male or female, black or white or asian. It’s so ingrained, it’s literally the first aspect of who they are. My catholicism is secondary to my being a wife, a mother, a sister or a friend. It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around first identifying myself by my religious affiliation. Unless i were in some discussion where religion was the identifier, it wouldn’t even occur to me to mention it.
      For example, offered coffee…i would just say ‘no, thank you’ but my sister says ‘no. I don’t drink coffee, I’m mormon.’ Why? Who cares why you don’t drink coffee? A waitress just wants to know if you want some or not. She genuinely doesn’t care about your motivation to decline.

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