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Rees, "Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons" (reviewed by Harlow Clark) Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 2:07:51 AM

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Review
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Title:Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons
Editor: Robert Rees
Publisher: Signature Books
Genre: Devotional, Personal Essays
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 199
Binding: Hardbound
ISBN10: 1-56085-213-5
ISBN13: 978-1-56085-213-1
Price: $24.95

Reviewed by Harlow Clark for The Association for Mormon Letters

Remember the sacrament gem? Back when we had Priesthood Meeting in the mornings (and Relief Society and Primary during the week) followed a little later by Sunday School--with the Sacrament passed to both Junior and Senior Sunday School, then Sacrament Meeting in the evening--someone would stand before the sacrament hymn and recite a scripture the congregation could think about during the sacrament.

(I think it was the same verse all month because one week it was my turn and I recited what I had heard in Sacrament Meeting, proudly memorized. But of course the Junior Sunday School had a different gem, and I was too embarrassed to recite something else.)

Maybe a year or two after Donna and I were married we were down in Provo on a visit and I noticed Ed Kimball, who had moved in next door about 15 years earlier, was bishop. Before the sacrament Bishop Kimball stood and said that after Jesus gave his Bread of Life sermon,

“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-cool

I'm sure I had read that verse a few times but I hadn't noticed it. It hadn't moved me. Sometimes you have to take a gem out of its setting for it to shine.

Several of the writers in Robert Rees's new anthology “Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons” quote this passage, and Rees ends his essay, and therefore the book, with the passage, followed by a story about what it means to stay, the story of Levi Savage choosing to go with a handcart company leaving too late in the season, choosing to suffer their doom with them.

That illustration of the scripture and of the book's title is a nice rhetorical touch, but the scripture itself is worth looking at rhetorically. The Bread of Life sermon seems to me meant to drive disciples away, perhaps those who aren't serious, who come to him just to get a free meal with no real belief or desire to believe, but Jesus only learns after they leave how it feels to have disciples leave, and he expresses his grief in a question.

As Dennis Rasmussen says in “The Lord's Question,” a question invites response, and Peter doesn't give his response--his comfort--as something like, "There, there, don't cry. We still love you." He gives his response as a question, which invites a further response, both from Jesus and the readers.

Several writers note that the book's title, after the popular series at Sunstone theological Symposiums where the essays were first spoken, implies a question. Claudia L. Bushman says she doesn't like the question, though she's had reason to leave if she wants. "[W]hy should I leave? I love the Church. I don't want to leave it" (31).

Armand Mauss says the implied question contains or is part of another question: Why _should_ I stay? and finds it a bit troubling that the question seems so popular among "the most recent generations of Church members" (39).

But Lael Littke says, "I Always Intended to Leave." It is a remarkable essay, both for its engaging quality and its lack of omen. Rather than feeling ominous it feels a little like a cross between “It's a Wonderful Life” and a joke. That is, you can predict a punch line, like, "maybe after X is finished I can finally leave." The light touch allows her to explore some painful things without the exploration being painful, and the ending is much better than the punchline we can guess at but hope won't be the last line.

Karen Rosenbaum's "How Frail a Foundation" could also sound ominous, but instead expresses the hope and yearning of one who has given place for the seed to be planted and is waiting for it to grow. And waiting, and waiting. And hoping.

But the title implies something besides a question. Theology is not necessarily the same as belief, and going to a theological symposium is not necessarily the same as going to church or practicing the doctrines you're exploring. Inviting a response a question invites people to say, because I belong here, because I find the Church good, "I Stay to Serve and Be Served," as Molly Bennion puts it. The implied question gives respondents a chance to bear and bare testimony, as in Fred Christensen's "A Surgeon's Overwhelming Gratitude."

But there are those for whom scholarship is itself an act of worship. Thomas F. Rogers suggests this in the first essay, his declaration "It Satisfies My Restless Mind," which I keep remembering as questing mind, and Mary Lythgoe Bradford's "It Takes Many Villages" is a lovely portrait of a questing body and mind.

Robert Rees's closing essay also suggests scholarship as service, and Gregory R. Prince's "I Trust the Data" talks about reading hundreds of thousands of pages in studying and writing about the Mormon priesthood and the life of David O. McKay. "The gospel of Christ is breathtaking," says Chase Peterson (141).

Several, including Cherry Bushman Silver and Grethe Peterson and Morris Thurston, talk about childhood or family life in the Church. "In order to stay somewhere you have to be there in the first place," (53) Thurston says. "The prophet of my youth was Heber J. Grant and he lived in my ward," says J. Frederick "Toby" Pingree (75).

In counterpoint, "My Reasons and Motivations" by D. Jeff Burton talks about the need to fully explore our motivations, even their darker side, and William D. Russell's piece suggests that many in The Community of Christ have a different attitude toward prophets. He talks about revelations and preaching, but isn't nearly as taken with the idea of a charismatic prophet as many in the LDS Church are. The contrast is most interesting.

And finally I found Lavina Fielding Anderson's "A Coin Balanced on Its Rim" as poignant as I thought it would be, and was surprised by the sense of loss in Charlotte England's "My Leaps of Faith." "Through this and other experiences I was able to work my way out of the deep, dark hole I was in after losing Gene and start creating the new life that I would live without my dear Gene" (175).

The pictures that grace several of the essays, related thematically to the essays, remind me of the dignity of the black and white photograph.

This is the kind of book that you put down as you finish an essay, saying, "I finished that essay and it's only another mile till my stop," then you pick it up again, saying, "I've got a whole mile. I might as well start the next one."

It's also a fine book to share.
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