Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ex-Mormon Ryan McIlvain Writes Fiction Novel Entitled "Elders", Draws From His Own Missionary Experiences

The wisdom of a stake president in refusing to accept a missionary application from Emmett Clayton, who expressed doubts about his ability to condemn gay marriage while serving in the mission field, is further buttressed by this story about a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served a mission despite his own doubts, and later left the Church.

Ryan McIlvain is from a sixth-generation Mormon family; he was born in Utah and grew up in Massachusetts. But before he embarked upon his mission, he experienced doubts about his own faith beginning as early as age 13; those doubts grew as he served his mission. Subsequently, he left the Church, and is now living in Los Angeles and pursuing his Ph.D. in literature at the University of Southern California; you can visit his personal website HERE. McIlvain decided to draw on his own experiences to write a novel entitled "Elders", which follows a young American man and a young Brazilian man as they carry out their missions in Brazil. From the official back-cover description:

Elder McLeod -— outspoken, surly, a brash American -— is nearing the end of his mission in Brazil. For nearly two years he has spent his days studying the Bible and the Book of Mormon, knocking on doors, teaching missionary lessons -— “experimenting on the word.” His new partner is Elder Passos, a devout, ambitious Brazilian who found salvation and solace in the church after his mother’s early death. The two men are at first suspicious of each other, and their work together is frustrating, fruitless. That changes when a beautiful woman and her husband offer the missionaries a chance to be heard, to put all of their practice to good use, to test the mettle of their faith. But before they can bring the couple to baptism, they must confront their own long-held beliefs and doubts, and the simmering tensions at the heart of their friendship.

NRP provides a brief excerpt HERE, and even more excerpts are available HERE.

In his NPR interview, McIlvain reveals that door-to-door tracting was nerve-wracking, saying that it can be emotionally very taxing, especially when those doors close again and again and again. The frustration can accumulate, considering that McIlvain wanted to avoid being the overly-pushy type. But he does credit Mormonism with a lot of his literary acumen, citing his daily attendance at seminary when he was a high school student and the close attention to and meticulous interpretation of Scripture paid as having taught him to read closely and pay attention to each word within a sentence. Thus, although McIlvain is ex-Mormon, there's no evidence that he's anti-Mormon or intends to launch a grand Steve Benson-type crusade to "rescue" people from Mormonism.

Two reviewers agree that the book is not anti-Mormon. First, from The Blue Bookcase:

...the book was excellent. It was not an exposé, nor was it necessarily faith-promoting, which was a relief to me. I've found that both of these approaches tend to flatten out, polarize and oversimplify a subject, which in my opinion does not make good literature. In fact, this book is forthright in a way that would make devout Mormons uncomfortable; there is quite a bit of language, for example, and candid portrayal of masturbation and some sex, things that I think would be unnatural not to include in a book about 20 year old males trying to understand themselves and their place in the world.

Next, from River City Reading:

What I thought might be a fiery exposé of Mormonism was actually written in a delicate way that is neither accusing nor particularly supportive of the religion, rather it focuses more on the relationship between the Elders themselves. With different languages, backgrounds and cultures, McLeod and Passos have plenty to cause a rift between them. However, it is the different way they approach the Mormon religion and their beliefs that leads to the tension in their partnership.

Links to numerous other interviews and reviews are available HERE.

Not only does this book provide a candid inside look at the lives of a typical LDS missionary companionship, albeit fictional, but it also shows that despite making all the right stops and getting all the right training, a person can ultimately decide the LDS Church is not for him. It also shows that "ex-Mormon" and "anti-Mormon" are not always synonymous; when we reflexively and thoughtlessly merge "ex-Mormon" and "anti-Mormon" together, we risk driving away ex-Mormons permanently and catering to popular stereotypes of us being a cult. Ryan McIlvain has plenty of time to change his mind and come back if he wants to. But let's not repeat Lucifer's mistake of trying to scare everyone into the celestial kingdom. Since our Heavenly Father respects our free agency, we need to respect the free agency of others to effectively mirror Him. Remember our 11th Article of Faith: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may".

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