I am guilty, even now, of assuming that never-Mormons can never fully understand Mormon culture. Some of this attitude is a result of some of the questions and assumptions I have heard over the years. For example, a couple weeks ago, I had someone ask me if Mormons were allowed to celebrate Halloween. But, as with many things, I have been unduly harsh in my judgment. It is true that Mormon culture is confusing, with a lot of Mormon-specific terminology and beliefs. However, sometimes outsiders can see things that insiders, with their limited perspective, cannot.
Last week I wrote about re-reading the book “Under The Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer. This is a book that centers on a religiously-motivated murder; the Lafferty brothers, who were raised in a strict Mormon home, ultimately went back to a more fundamentalist interpretation of Mormonism that included polygamy, prophecy, and blood atonement. Krakauer used this example – and examples from other modern fundamentalist groups – to draw a connection between the actions of fundamentalists and the origins of their beliefs in early Mormon teachings. The first time I read “Under The Banner of Heaven” I missed a lot of details, owing to my limited insider’s point of view. Fast forward a decade, during which my perspective on the Mormon faith shifted more towards an outsider’s point of view, and I began to see things I had been unable to see before.
I grew up with a highly white-washed, saccharine view of Mormon origins. Everything was painted in black and white: Mormons and non-Mormons, good and evil. The good Mormons and the mob that persecuted the Mormons. But life is more complicated than that. Instead of black and white, most of life is painted in varying shades of complexity. People are a mixture of good and bad intentions, a fact that seems to be reflected in an outsider’s view of Mormon history. Mormons (and ex-Mormons) have something to prove about their history. Never-Mormons do not, which allows them a valuable impartiality.
And so that brings me to my main question: can outsiders truly understand Mormon culture? It appears to me that the answer is yes, that outsiders can see things about Mormon culture that, as insiders, we don’t see. The more I travel out of Mormonism, the more I begin to see my past struggles with a clearer eye. I never had to struggle with balancing my faith with unsavory Mormon history; I only discovered the alternate history after leaving. I did, however, struggle to make sense of the rationale behind the priesthood ban on blacks. I remember struggling with the idea that access to Heaven is only granted as a result of Mormon temple rituals and that only by getting married and having children would I be allowed into Heaven. Specific rituals and beliefs struck me as being an arbitrary requirement that had nothing to do with how good or bad a person's heart was. I remember struggling with the idea that faith in the Mormon Church was the only way to truly be happy, when the reality was that it made me miserable. Now that I am out, I am recognizing the mental gymnastics that I had to put myself through in order to align my own personal convictions with the teachings of Mormonism.
Yes, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about Mormonism. But the truth is that the outsiders who take the time to listen and research end up coming away with a far more complete assessment of Mormon culture than many insiders, with their limited perspective, can manage.