SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read East of Eden, close this article and read that instead. If you’ve already read it or need motivation to do so, you may proceed.
So I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, East of Eden, and I’m pretty sure it’s the best book I’ve ever read (yes, that includes the Book of Mormon, hardy har har). Besides having lines so exquisitely rich you can almost taste them, the book is remarkable for its ability to capture many of the sentiments at the heart of a faith transition.
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Now, I don’t think Steinbeck intended to write about people leaving Mormonism. But some of the universal themes he address are just so profoundly relevant that I had to share them.
I’ve had a hard time selecting the lines to use because I didn’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet. I’ll try to provide a little context without giving away too much. Of course, the full experience is reading the book in its entirety.
One of the first bits that caught my attention was a conversation between two brothers. After their father’s death, one of them questions his integrity while the other defends him.
“I don’t believe he was a liar.
“But the papers—”
“I won’t look at the papers. Papers are no match at all for my faith in my father.”
When first presented with evidence that our beliefs are not founded in truth, we may become immediately defensive and dismissive. We don’t need to “look at the papers” because, in our mind, they are no match for the faith we have in our religion.
Later in the book, one of the sons is grown and has two sons of his own. Wishing to protect them from their estranged mother’s reputation, he tells them a lie. His hired servant and friend has this conversation with him:
“I wish there were some way you could tell the boys the truth.”
“That would rob them of the good thoughts about their mother, Lee.”
“Have you thought about the other danger?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, suppose they find out the truth. Plenty of people know.”
“Well, maybe when they’re older it will be easier for them.”
“I don’t believe that,” said Lee. “But that’s not the worst danger.”
“I guess I don’t follow you, Lee.”
“It’s the lie I’m thinking of. It might infect everything. If they ever found out you lied to them about this, the true things would suffer. They wouldn’t believe anything then.”
Many of Mormonism’s information gatekeepers take this same approach. They bury the truth in lies for fear that it will be too much for people to handle. They uses phrases like “milk before meat,” and “line upon line.” The consequence is as Lee says—everything else is corrupted. Sure we can acknowledge the good that the church does, but the fact doesn’t go away that we were lied to.
Of course, we eventually do find out the truth. Then the need to untangle the web of deceit consumes us. We, like one of the sons, HAVE to know the truth.
“I need to know.”
“Why? Didn’t you feel better before you knew?”
“Yes. But I can’t stop now.”
“You’re right,” said Lee. “When the first innocence goes, you can’t stop—unless you’re a hypocrite or a fool.”
The more we dig, the more painful it becomes. The heroes we once worshipped fall from our esteem. And our admiration is replaced with a piercing sense of betrayal.
“When a child first catches adults out—when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just—his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck.”
Yes, the process is awful, but as Steinbeck observes, “There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.”
Gradually we being to rebuild ourselves. Though our efforts have been sincere, we are frequently misunderstood, judged, ostracized, or even persecuted.
“It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s punishment for it, and it’s usually crucifixion.”
With priestly robes fallen from our shoulders, we become more and more comfortable in our own skin. Outside the garden of innocence, we find that the world is not so lone and dreary as we once believed. We begin see the glories of the universe carved in the faces of those who we formerly judged and painted in every ray of sunlight. We become the masters of our own destinies.
“And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe.”
Sometimes it’s is hard to explain our new zeal for truth and autonomy. Of course, Steinbeck says it best:
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected… I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts.”
Latter-day Saints often struggle with not feeling “good enough.” Their aim is perfection and grace comes only “after all [they] can do.” One of the most transformative parts of the faith transition is realizing that it’s okay to not be perfect.
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
Be good, all. 🙂
And read a book.