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Walter Kirn, Lightweight Ex-Mormon?

July 22, 2012

Walter KirnI first learned about Walter Kirn when he was nominated for (and won) Main Street Plaza’s William Law “X”-Mormon of the Year competition in 2009. And somehow, I must have forgotten about him, because more recently, some friends were talking about how much they loved Up in the Air (movie version), and I never thought to put two and two together.

Well…Kirn is back and action, and his latest Confessions of an Ex-Mormon (in The New Republic) is a must-read. This being the first major work I’ve read of his (since I’m functionally illiterate and truly cannot drive myself to read full-books, after all), this was my first real “introduction” to Kirn…and I am very impressed.

The thing about Kirn is that he presents Mormonism in a very balanced light. Whereas the title of his article might lead one to think that this is an exposé, this article is incredibly fair to Mormons and Mormonism — it speaks to the values that many members live every day as a result of their faith. Kirn’s approach is remarkable in that even though “Ex-Mormon” is explicitly mentioned in the title, this is an article that I’ve seen complimented over and over by believing members.

Interestingly, some discussions from believing members have taken certain of Kirn’s comments and drawn interesting conclusions from them. For example, from the following part from Kirn’s article:

What finally separated me from the Church was a loss of nerve, not a crisis of belief. My time in the ward had shown me at close range that God doesn’t work in mysterious ways at all, but by enlisting assistants on the ground. I saw sick people healed through the laying on of hands, not suddenly and magically, but gradually, from the comfort that comes of feeling the group’s concern. I’d heard inspired messages spoken in common English, sometimes from my own excited lips. This proximity to the sacred scared me off. Too much responsibility, it felt like. Too much pressure to side with the miraculous, which places demands on a busy, modern person. You sit down on a plane beside a gloomy lawyer who’s cursing himself under his breath, and instead of ignoring him and reading a book, you have to ask his name and offer solace.

My stated excuse for sneaking away from Mormonism was skepticism about its doctrines, but I’d learned that most Mormons don’t grasp all the teachings of Joseph Smith—nor do they credit all the ones they do grasp. After the bus trip to Eden, holy Missouri never came up again in conversation. As for the future temple in Independence, I found out that the spot where Smith said it would rise belonged to a Mormon splinter sect with a U.S. membership of about 1,000. The “sacred underwear”? It was underwear. Everyone wears it, so why not make it sacred? Why not make everything sacred? It is, in some ways. And most sacred of all are people, not wondrous stories, whose job is to help people feel their sacredness. Sometimes the stories don’t work, or they stop working. Forget about them; find others. Revise. Refocus. A church is the people in it, and their errors. The errors they make while striving to get things right.

But I didn’t have the patience, or the humility. I wasn’t a son of stubborn pioneers. I was the son of the lawyer on the plane who’d suffered the breakdown I thought I could avoid. I left the Church as abruptly as I’d entered it. No formalities, no apologies, no goodbyes.

I’m guessing this snippet is the basis for James Goldberg from Mormon Midrashim concluding:

Walter Kirn presents himself as someone who chose independence over humble service. Who asserted his right to publicly reject beliefs because he also wanted the right to reject the radical responsibilities Jesus yoked his followers with. But I admire him for telling the truth about the great gospel experiment when he could easily have praised the fruits and trashed the tree.


In similar veins, I’ve seen people infer in some discussions that Walter’s sympathetic tone toward the church is evidence that he really believes deep down inside, but doesn’t want to live to what he knows and believes is true.

Regardless…this is where the paradox comes in…for an article about an ex-Mormon written by an ex-Mormon, the people who seem to be most against the article are…certain other ex-Mormons.

I’m not saying that all ex-Mormons disagree with Kirn’s post, but there was enough disagreement that I was kinda surprised. This thread from Recovery from Mormonism highlights some of the major criticism’s of Kirn’s post, but there has been a refrain I’ve seen from the comments at a few sites that seems to levy the same sort of critique against Kirn…See below for what I believe to be the most caustic critique:

Yeah, wouldn’t it be great to spend three years of your youth in Mormonism, no pressure from parents to stay or go on a mission or get up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to go to priesthood, heavy petting and smoking pot with a wild young LDS girl with scent of menthol cigarrettes on her breath, never giving 10% of your hard earned graveyard shift income to the church, never feeling any debt to the first Mormon ancestor 7 generations back, never living in a rat infested barrio battling the dissentary still working dawn till dusk in your black and white uniform with the buzz cut and plastic badge and teaching some black people they were cursed and not EVERY good boy gets to be a deacon and sometimes guiltily haunted by the thought, jwtfaidh? then at 17 returning to your roots and leaving it all (not getting shunned) when college beckened. Then as a divorsee hanging out with Ben Olsen and other Mormon pretty people in Beverly Hills mooching free furniture and food, while they tolerated your fuck pad and your wine and beer and let you borrow their truck with no expecation of replacing the gas because George Cloony was playing in the movie made from your book.

This guy’s an exmo light weight or worse. No wonder his memories are so nice. He’d also sell his soul for an angle; he’s a phony. He’s an immature male version of Joanna Brooks, with a shallower Mormon experience, a freelance writer profiteering on playing the nice philosophical contrarian exmo. I’m not impressed.


So, let’s get this straight…the contention is basically that Kirn is able to have such warm fuzzies about Mormonism because he never was really all that Mormon. He was a convert, but not a long-term convert…didn’t have parental or family pressures, didn’t go on a mission, didn’t even follow commandments like the Law of Chastity, etc., And because he left before he was an adult, he never paid tithing.

And so, he is an “exmo light weight.” The “immature male version of Joanna Brooks” (wow, Joanna; you’ve got haters!)

Personally, I think it would be great if most ex-Mormons could get to some sort of place of peace like Walter has…I think it would be great if we could all look on our past experiences without being driven to tears or rage in the process.

…but what if this is the unrealistic wishes of a “lightweight ex-Mormon”? After all, what strikes me about SeattleUte’s criticism of Walter Kirn is how much could apply to me. Now, to be honest, there’s a lot that doesn’t apply. I was born and raised in the church, so that’s more than “three years of [my] youth.” Additionally, there was no heavy petting or pot smoking in my teenager-dom (but since I wasn’t really interested in either heavy petting or pot smoking, does that count?). I did get up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to go to priesthood (although, really, church started at 8 or 9…that’s not really the crack of dawn…I would say that getting up for seminary was more of a struggle.)

But inspite of those things, there are a lot of things that do apply. Seminary? I only did that for one year, and that was really inconsistent. Tithing? I have never earned income while I was active in the church. Mission? Nope, didn’t go (and my parents didn’t freak out about that, either.)

Ultimately, I would have to summarize it like this: I would say I’m pretty mellow on the church, but is that because I don’t harbor gigantic scars, either?

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  1. chinoblanco permalink

    >Sometimes the stories don’t work, or they stop working. Forget about them; find others. Revise. Refocus.

    Kirn took his own good advice and life’s been swell for him as far as anyone can tell. It’s not his fault the LDS leadership can’t or won’t revise or refocus, but he might’ve avoided some of this exmo umbrage if he’d bothered to acknowledge that pesky reality in his essay.

  2. If Kirn only spent three years in the church and didn’t grow up in a hardcore Mormon household, it’s true that he probably missed out on a lot of the more damaging aspects of the LDS experience.

    Even so, his more balanced approach to describing a religion he no longer belongs to is probably a more responsible and more effective approach than others have taken. Not only is it more peaceful, but it probably gets more attention. If you scream and curse and shout “cult!” all the time people are going to want you to just go away. If you’re willing to analyze both the bad and the good that comes out of something, people are more likely to listen.

  3. 2 things:

    1) Yes, his experience is valid even if it’s different than many others who have left the church. There are many “soft” Mormons like him who would probably feel the same.

    2) I have many friends who still believe in the church . . . or they say they do. They drink, have sex, do whatever they want, and then we’ll be hanging out some night and religion comes up and they say, “Ya, I mean I still believe it, I just don’t agree with all the rules.” And I think . . . “Um . . . you have NO clue what you’re talking about. I know your religion about 2000 times better than you and I’ve been an atheist for 5 years . . . .”

  4. Seth R. permalink

    The online exmormon community attracts a disproportionate percentage of douchebags. But they don’t really represent an accurate slice of the percentages in the real ex-Mormon world.

    Judging the entire ex-Mormon population by the views found in online ex-Mormonism would be like judging your Republican next door neighbors by the last Tea Party rally you read about.

    Get offline, and people are a lot less angry and dogmatic.

  5. Wow, Andrew, I’m glad I learned about Kirn’s essay through your post. I really enjoyed the essay – very smart, well-written, thoughtful, and moving. (I was less impressed by his novel, Up in the Air, which had an ending that completely confused me.) It’s funny, because Kirn kind of contradicts himself – the Missouri road trip experience clearly led him to an epiphany about the lack of plausibility in the church’s stories and doctrines – it’s clear he realized at that point that he just couldn’t swallow it anymore. Yet later on he seems to say his real reason for leaving wasn’t disbelief but weakness of will. There does seem something a little disingenuous in that contradiction, but to me it seems forgivable, since it’s clearly a very well-intentioned disingenousness, just like general disingenuousness that allows practicing Mormons to swallow implausible stories and doctrines to stay in the church.

    As for your experience, Andrew, hm, I wonder – I do think it’s going to be harder for exMos to be mellow on the church if they feel deeply scarred by their involvement in it. Comparing Kirn and you to me, I think I’m someone no one could accuse of being an exMo light – I was deeply involved from birth, lived all the precepts, and found it very difficult to leave (for reasons that were definitely doctrinal and not weakness of will). And yes, I think I feel scarred in some ways. I do try to be mellow on the church nonetheless. There is a lot there that I don’t respect, a lot that I consider absurd or just plain dumb, but I think it’s important to try to keep those opinions of mine in perspective and balance them with aspects of the church experience that were formative and positive, and with my liking and respect for individual Mormon folks and the loveable, nutty parts of Mormon culture. It seems like however bad one’s experience with Mormonism was, it’s a worthy goal to strive for the kind of fairness and mellowness and generosity of spirit that you and Kirn both display – so I try for that, too.

    Incidentally, Joanna Brooks is an interesting case to compare with too – I just finished her memoir (the self-pubbed version she put out before it reportedly got picked up by a real publisher). It’s funny because I thought she was considerably harsher on the church than Kirn and some other exMos I could mention. And I felt kind of sad for her that she would nevertheless feel so compelled to stick with a church that didn’t seem to want or understand her, a church whose values and outlook were so at odds with her own. Maybe she’d be able to be more mellow about the church if she’d stayed out of it rather than coming back … I wonder!

  6. The online mormon community attracts a disproportionate percentage of douchebags. But they don’t really represent an accurate slice of the percentages in the real Mormon world.

    Judging the entire Mormon population by the views found in online Mormonism would be like judging your Republican next door neighbors by the last Tea Party rally you read about.

    Get offline, and people are a lot less angry and dogmatic.

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