Because Mitt Romney, a Mormon who once served for 30 months in France as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be the GOP presidential nominee this year, lots of people have been curious about what it means to be a Mormon missionary.
For several understandable reasons, Romney, on the campaign trail, has been reluctant to focus intently on either his Mormon faith or his experiences as a young man seeking converts in France.
And although every Mormon missionary has unique experiences, I think a new book, Two Years in God's Mormon Army, by Ross H. Palfreyman, may give all of us at least a glance at what being a Mormon missionary might be like.
Now, it certainly is true that Palfreyman's two years in and around Bangkok, Thailand, in the 1970s were quite different from Romney's assignment a few years earlier, when he spent much time in Paris. I've been both to Bangkok and to Paris -- and, trust me, there's a big difference.
That said, Palfreyman -- after a terrible opening sentence -- writes in enlightening ways about Mormonism and the task of missionaries. Indeed, I came to like him because of his sense of humor, his sense of curiosity and his willingness to ask questions about aspects of official church teaching.
Early on in the book, Palfreyman acknowledges his shortcomings as a 19-year-old missionary:
"With just a year of college completed. . .and no idea who I really was, I was being asked to tell the Thai people that I knew the way and the truth, and had the light. Somehow that did not invoke fear and trembling in my being, though I suppose it should have."
He also writes about ways in which rigid conformity ran against the grain for him:
"One of the mental impediments was that I could never resign myself to believe that conformity was equal to spirituality. I could believe only that conformity provided order. Order and spirituality were not necessarily the same thing. This mission, then, became a real test of my own belief system."
He expresses a similar attitude about church leaders who would try to whip up enthusiasm for the missionary enterprise:
"I have always had an aversion to meetings that were meant to psyche you up to perform a task I felt I was already working pretty hard at."
And although Palfreyman was then and remains today a committed Mormon, he's not unwilling to poke a bit of fun at the faith:
"One thing I will say about Mormon testimony meetings -- you will rarely be in a setting where platitudes and accolades are more predictable."
He adopts a similar attitude about the Mormon teaching that adherents should avoid alcohol, coffee or tea and tobacco:
". . .so long as you don't smoke or drink alcohol, coffee or tea, members are declared to be followers of the Word of Wisdom and are invited to participate in the temple ceremonies. It does not really matter what other horrible things you might do to your body, as is evidenced by the number of people attending the temple who would no doubt benefit from some time at a gym instead."
And although Palfreyman doesn't purport to speak for the Mormon Church or other Mormons, I wonder how many other Mormons agree with him when he writes this about the church's long-ago rejection of the practice of polygamy:
"The practice of polygamy that Joseph Smith (Mormonism's founder) declared was ordained of God had been cut off by decree for political expediency. To this day, the principle of polygamy remains a viable tenet in the doctrine of the church. However, its practice is punishable by excommunication."
Well, as I say, it's probably unfair to try to get a sense of Romney's experience by reading Palfreyman's account, though surely there were some common aspects of their experiences.
The writing in this book (published through Book Printing Revolution) will not win any prizes for originality or creativity. But it does have the virtue of clarity, which readers sometimes would sell their souls to get.
And it offers a window into a religious practice about which lots of people wonder today, in part because a man who wants to be president once participated in it.
(I mentioned a terrible opening sentence, but I'll let you be the judge. Here it is: "I watched the lubricating oil slowly trickle down the pale green wall as my index drill first drilled, then threaded, and finally countersunk aluminum protractor part after aluminum protractor part." Trust me: The path from there is up.)
By the way, as a bit of an extra today, here's an interesting piece about how Mitt Romney's presidential race is, in effect, furthering the effort to bring Mormonism into the mainstream of Christianity. I'm not sure that this merger ever will be complete as long as Mormons insist that the Book of Mormon (and other writing) is equal in stature as scripture to the Bible, but we'll see.
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IMPROVING MEDIA COVERAGE OF FAITH
A national network of Internet sites offering religious news is being created through Religion News Service, which now has its headquarters at my alma mater, the University of Missouri. RNS does great work, and one can only hope that this new effort will improve the media's coverage of religion around the country. It needs plenty of improvement.