Saturday, December 27, 2014

Living Between the Questions: a guest blog by Mette Ivie Harrison

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Mette Ivie Harrison can only be described as a woman who leaves all the rest of us in the dust. Literally - she's completed four Ironman competitions and multiple ultra marathons (those are the ones that go 50 miles or more.)  She's the successful, critically acclaimed author of seven young adult novels and one nonfiction book, IRONMOM. She picked up the violin and the piano as an adult to keep up with her children. Did I mention she has five children? And a Phd from Princeton? And she volunteers for her ward? And quilts? Do you feel inadequate yet?

Don't. Instead, read THE BISHOP'S WIFE, Mette's first adult novel and first mystery (and a New York Times Notable Book. Okay, feel a little inadequate.) Along with being a twisty mystery, THE BISHOP'S WIFE is an emotionally honest account of issues many, many women face today. How to be a faithful person in a patriarchal religion. How to be a feminist when your primary role is wife and mother. How to be your authentic self when the culture all around you demands you perform womanhood in a clearly defined way.

Here's Mette Ivie Harrison with us today, talking about growing up, growing wise, and growing into herself.



In 1988, I was in a group of 48 high school seniors (24 men and 24 women) who were invited for 3 days to the campus of Brigham Young University as the final interview portion of the competition for the “Ezra Taft Benson” scholarship, named after the then President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. These were the best of the best, the cream of the crop. We went through long written tests, as well as group projects where we were being observed from behind mirrored glass. We had all of our meals with the judges, and were being evaluated on everything from table manners to conversational style. 

 On the final day, I had an exit interview with one of the professor/judges who had looked through my application with a fine-toothed comb and asked me about my answer to “Who is your personal hero?” It was Ghandi. This was just after the movie with Ben Kingsley had been released. I had not done any extra reading, but the movie portrayed the man as a kind of prophet. The professor asked me if I would change my mind about Ghandi if I found out that he had been a user and abuser of many of the women in his life. I thought only briefly about my answer and said, basically, no. He still did the good that he did, even so.

I won the scholarship, and attended BYU for two years, until I moved on to a PhD program at Princeton University. I have continued to think about that one question about Ghandi for the rest of my life, and wondered many times what would have happened if I had answered differently. You see, I did read more about Ghandi and my image of Ghandi became rather tarnished, as it turns out every hero’s image I have ever had. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gary Hart, Bill Clinton. We sometimes excuse them as “products of their times” or as “men with appetites.” It is still an excuse and it leaves a bitter taste.



I returned to Utah to work at Brigham Young University myself after my dissertation was complete still a staunch believer of Mormonism, but when my youngest daughter was stillborn in 2005, I had a terrible crisis of faith. It was less about specific doctrines of the Mormon church or shocking revelations about the history of the church and more about the reality of God Himself, and the way in which we grapple with tragedy as humans, and as Mormons. I spent the next seven years as a faithful church-attending Mormon atheist, which was a useful solution since I didn’t have to really grapple with theological issues as such. These were all problems invented by people, it seemed to me, to make sense out of things that made no sense because they were random events. Or they were attempts to create a holistic theology out of a disparate series of documents and leaders who had different ideals, purposes, and goals over two centuries of time.

But in 2012 I came to a longing for a spiritual life once more. And so in the past two years, I have decided to work my way back to the Mormon church. Strangely enough, this involved writing the first of a series of detective novels in which the main character (Linda Wallheim in The Bishop’s Wife), a far more faithful woman than I was when I wrote her, grapples nonetheless with the problems I struggle with. And she does not flinch away from them, nor does she lose her faith. She was the woman I wanted to become, a woman who contemplates seriously the flaws of the great men within the church, the issue of the invisibility and powerless of women, and the need for the Mormon church to address the questions of this century rather than continuing to deal with the persecutions of the first forty years of our religion.

The essay that the church has recently published on the topic of Joseph Smith and polygamy made me cheer. It felt like an enormous step forward in honesty and in becoming a church that deals with flawed heroes and flawed prophets, that faces head-on the kinds of difficult stories that other religions have faced for many years. If a religion has at its head a man who is by some evaluations a criminal, does that mean there is no basis for faith? Must a Mormon believe that the Book of Mormon is an actual translation of the Gold Plates? Can Joseph Smith be at one and the same time a man of “appetites” and also a prophet of God?

I find a kind of satisfaction now in sitting with these questions without demanding one answer or another. I also recognize that other Mormons are deeply disturbed by this cognitive dissonance and would much prefer a Mormonism that has easier answers and a more black and white view of the world. And I honor those Mormons, because in my experience, these are also the people who are most likely to volunteer to come help me move furniture. They are there to help at homeless shelters, to make quilts to send to the Philippines after the disaster there. They donate money to good causes. They come and listen to my complaints and hold me while I weep and they do not ask for anything in return.

And so to my young self, who was so sure that Ghandi was her hero and that she could never be swayed from that opinion, I say—good for you. To the self I am now who is disturbed by men who claim divine mandates that excuse misbehavior, I say—good for you. Both selves were rooted in deep moral conviction, and Mormonism is a big enough church for all.


How about you, dear readers? Have you had clashes between your young-self assurance and your  older-self doubts? Do you live with questions that may not have answers? Join the conversation, and two lucky commenters will get a copy of THE BISHOP'S WIFE!

You can find out more about Mette and her books at her website. and at her blog on Tumblr. You can friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @metteharrison.

22 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

I enjoyed reading “The Bishop’s Wife” and found myself cheering for Linda as she tenaciously grappled with issues; the unraveling of the mysteries certainly kept me involved in the story.
While I suspect we would all like to have life come with easy answers and less-flawed heroes, that does not seem to be the way of a world filled with so many unanswerable questions. Nor does it change the fact that the good that people do is still good. Thanks for a thought-provoking story.

Edith Maxwell said...

Mette, thank you for sharing your experiences in such a thoughtful way. My older sister has been a Mormon since her college days and is a mystery addict, too. I'll alert her to your book. And will add it to my own TBR pile!

Edith Maxwell said...

(And perhaps I should have mentioned that my other sister is a Buddhist and I'm a Quaker, so we sometimes have very interesting but gently-trod conversations about faith and practice!)

Reine said...

I watched other seminarians drop out as they did very demanding critical work with biblical source materials. When faced with a new understanding of the foundation of their practiced faith they could not continue their preparation for ministry. Some just packed up and went home, disappearing in the night. Others switched to masters and doctoral programs in theology or religious studies. Their faith-based lives were real, but they were founded in misunderstanding of how faith plays out in religion as a conceptual and interpretive existence that cannot be an easy ticket to salvation--one that is not as concrete as it may appear.

Reine said...
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Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thank you so much..fascinating! Welcome Mette! Didn't we meet at..Bouchercon??

The good that people do is still good. Hmm. Yeah, that's a quandary. (I think of Bill Cosby.)

James Montgomery Jackson said...

We three children of my parents grew up Presbyterian. One of us is Unitarian Universalist, one highish Episcopalian, one nontraditional Catholic (women priests).

I commented to my mother that the Presbyterians hadn't done very well by us, and my mother's response was that we all were people of faith -- even if the faiths were different, and we had all come to our decisions as thinking adults.

The blacks and whites of childhood certainty turn into the grays of adulthood experience.

The combination of mystery and life issues you address sounds very interesting. One more for my TBR pile.

~ Jim

danielle-momo said...

I'm always interested by people's approach to faith and religion, especially women.
As a catholic, I studied with nuns, then droped out of church and returned as a wife and mother. I then studied in theology and it left me with more questions than answers. I have a problem with women'roles in religions .
But being a reading addict, I love books written by authors of différents faiths. We learn a lot about humanity and faith and it widdens our perception of life and of God.
I'll certainly read The Bishop's Wife soon
Thank you for your post and thanks to Julia for inviting
you

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Mette! Do you know Jana Riess, a Mormon feminist writer? Jana was my roommate at Wellesley.

Julia said...

In a nice bit of timing, THE BISHOP'S WIFE has an excellent review in today's LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-mette-ivie-harrison-20141228-story.html

Mette Harrison said...

Yes! I came to the Reds Dictionary show!

Mette Harrison said...
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Mette Harrison said...

Weird! Yes, Jana converted while I was at Princeton and I spoke at her baptism. I am now a monthly guest columnist at her site.

Mette Harrison said...

They are likely afraid of being made fun of. I'd suggest reading a little of the Book of Mormon and asking questions or start with some compliments about well-known Mormons.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Mette, that is so funny! Such a small world! : ) And CONGRATS on the book — can't wait to read.

Kathy Reel said...

I think that faith is an evolving journey that we spend our whole lives seeking answers to questions that may or may not have clear cut answers, usually the answers are, like your Ghandi question, an evolution of their own, growing over time and experience. Mette, your journey is most interesting, as I don't have the opportunity to discuss faith with Mormons where I live. I did have an interesting conversation with one of my painter's crew the other day. He is a Jehovah's Witness, which is, too, outside of my realm of experience. I grew up Methodist, changed to Baptist when I got married, and I am now without an established church organization. I was a really poor fit for Southern Baptist, but that was an evolving journey, too, as my liberal beliefs began to resurface after my attempt to provide a conventional, being-a-good-wife church stability for my children. I think the moment that I realized I had to leave the Southern Baptist church was when the preacher announced from the pulpit the dangers of reading Harry Potter. My son and I, who were fans of Harry, looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Said son is now Buddhist, and my daughter is Methodist. I consider myself a spiritual person, but I don't have an affiliation with a church. However, I have enjoyed attending my daughter's Methodist worship services. With me, I think religion will always be an open-ended affair. I don't believe that any one religion or denomination has all the answers.

Thanks, Mette, for an interesting topic today, and I will be adding your book to my TBR list.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

thanks for visiting Mette--what a fascinating post. I am in awe of all you do. But also dumbstruck at the idea of a scholarship competition in which they watched kids through two-way mirrors...

Congrats on the book, looking forward to reading this one!

Reine said...

Thank you for your response, Mette. I am sad that they might have been afraid of being made fun of.

Deb Romano said...

In the past year I've been re-reading (in some cases, attempting to re-read) books on spirituality that I first read in the 70s and early 80s.I've had a lot of experiences since first reading the books that affect the way I react to and even interpret their content now. Books that I could not put down 40 years ago are just not "speaking" to me now. And one that seemed sort of dry back then is so beautiful to me now that I want to read each chapter twice before moving on to the next.

I am much more accepting of all people now, and much less rigid than I was way back then. I attribute most of that to maturity.

Mette, I'm going to go look for your book ASAP!

Anonymous said...

How very much I enjoyed this description of your spiritual journey. Theology does raise more questions than it answers, which is informative. We just cannot know everything about God and God's will. I'm thinking that many people who think deeply go through dry spells when it comes to having faith. The good news is that those of us who are so inclined almost always find our way forward, though not as we expected. Congratulations on your new book!

katie said...

I can't wait to read your book, Mette! I have read several of your others and loved The Princess and the Hound. I grew up Mormon and still firmly believe in the church, but my husband lost faith in God a few years ago and says he is now an atheist. I would love to read your book to try to understand some of the thoughts of those who struggle in the church. I appreciate you sharing your journey with us.

Lynda said...

Mette, I am always looking for new writers to enjoy. I am looking forward to reading your new book, "The Bishop's Wife". I was raised an Episcopalian but converted to The Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints as an adult. I struggle with some of the doctrine not the theology, I feel that is sound. However, after the unexpected death of our 28 year-old son, I found that wrapped in all the confusing doctrine and theology was Heavenly Father's tender mercies, that allowed me to live through an experience I thought I could not live through. At any rate, good show, I am looking forward to this novel.