A plastic pirate skull swings from the rearview mirror as Nate swerves the car around another pedestrian. I close my eyes, grip the seat, and say a silent to prayer to whatever higher power might hear me. “Woops,” he says nonchalantly. “Here, I need you to steer.” Before I have the opportunity to scream, “Why the hell do I need to steer?!” Nate lets go of the wheel and begins fiddling with his iPhone. I grab and jerk the wheel, narrowly avoiding a telephone pole. When we finally arrive at our destination unscathed, all I can think is, Oh my God.
I’ve been thinking a lot about religion since meeting Nate, and I think that this has more to do with his driving than it does with the fact that he’s Mormon. Nate and I met when I was 15. His most prominent features then included a mullet and fondness of braiding office supplies into my hair. Although completely won over by the lead singer of the “Drunken Vikings”, I still don’t understand Nate’s unique appeal. I ask a mutual friend to enlighten me.
“Why do we pay so much attention to him?”
“Well… he’s weird.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
“And he’s Mormon.”
My curiosity has gotten the best of me. Does religion make a person? Peeking over at the driver’s seat, it’s hard to recognize the boy I met so many years ago. He’s decked in a three-piece suit and hand-woven, Italian leather shoes, a far cry from the cargo shorts and wrestling tee shirt he used to wear everyday in high school. I ask him if the suit is a “Mormon thing”, and he answers no. “I just look really good,” he says and winks at me as we climb out of his bright blue sedan and walk towards Nate’s church.
I spend two hours the previous night trying to decide what to wear and how to hide my piercings and neon orange streak of hair the next morning. I call Nate at 11 p.m. in a panic, asking him if I would be all right to wear dress pants.
“No,” he says as if the answer should have been obvious.
“Well, they’re really nice pants. They’re part of a suit.”
“Women don’t really wear pants to church.”
I grumble and hang up the phone. I settle on a knee-length skirt and cardigan and decide that my hair is a lost cause. Walking into the church, I sigh with relief as I see that everyone is wearing the same thing. I’m lost in a sea of pantyhose. My hair is all wrong but at least I got the outfit right. Nate was telling the truth. Not a single woman is wearing pants. I’m surrounded by chic dresses and this season’s latest footwear. The men are all in dark suits. They look warm and approachable, but for some inexplicable reason they look different. It takes me several minutes to pinpoint the reason: the plainness of their hair and glasses suggests a subtle conservatism.
Nate on the other hand is sporting a designer haircut. While the men around him seem gentle, Nate looks like the kind of guy who would get in a bar fight over whether Saddam or Hitler was the better dictator—a rare combination of rashness and intellectual intensity. He’s got week-old beard stubble and a milk stain on his dress shirt from this morning’s breakfast of Fruity Pebbles. He glances around the church, looking for his parents and younger sister. He spots them in a back pew and we take a seat with them.
We are surrounded by children. They are everywhere—climbing pews, crawling on the ground, holding their parents’ hands, needing a diaper change, asking if they can “go potty”, stacking hymnals, picking their noses, playing “Thomas the Tank Engine”, fiddling with their clothing, and making dinosaur noises. I knew that the Mormon Church placed a large emphasis on family, but I had no idea hat there’d be so many kids, especially since the Church supports the usage of birth control. It seems that everyone in the room is either a parent or a child. Although unusual, this fact pales in comparison to my other observation: there are no old people.
I lean over and whisper in Nate’s ear, “Why are there no old people?”
He whispers back, “We euthanize them all.”
I stare straight ahead and attempt to focus on the service while Nate tries to get the attention of a little boy sitting in the pew in front of us. Every time the toddler looks up at Nate from his plastic dinosaurs, Nate’s eyes go wide and he puffs his cheeks out like a chipmunk. I can’t decide if the child is amused or terrified.
I switch back to concentrating on the proceedings of the service. Instead of a minister, priest, or other main figure, different members of the congregation or “ward” lead the service each week. Opposed to the usual couple of chairs found in other places of worship, the fronts of Mormon sanctuaries are lined with pews arranged stadium-style. The speakers for that Sunday sit up front when not delivering their talks.
The service begins with ward announcements, and then boys start walking up and down the aisles, passing around tiny cups of water and bites of bread for the Sacrament. This only takes a few moments, in fact the entire service only lasts an hour. A few hymns and a speech or two later, and the service is over.
This Sunday, Rachel Lindsay, a 14-year-old blond, talks about her experiences at sleep-away camp. She looks like a typical middle-schooler, both nervous and bored. “This past summer I went to sleep-away camp, she begins, after standing up from one of the front pews. Reading a script resting on the pulpit in front of her, she continues, “It was in New Hampshire and I was scared to be away from my Mormon friends. The nearest ward was a 45-minute-drive away, so I couldn’t go to church on Sundays. There were no other Mormons there, so I had to avoid temptations on my own. I was faced with temptations everyday like tea and rated R movies. One night all the girls were going to watch a rated R movie. Luckily a Christian girl also wasn’t going to see the movie either, so she and I kept each other company. That night ended up being a good experience because I made a Christian friend.”
Nate looks and me and says, “Don’t worry. She and her family are crazy.”
After one last hymn, the service ends and I exhale a breath of relief. I’m glad not to have made a complete fool of myself. “C’mon, heathen,” Nate says, ignoring the people around him. While his family mingles and says hello to friends, Nate seems to have no interest in socializing.
“What?” I ask.
“Sunday School. It’s two hours. Let’s go.”
I stare at him.
“We’re only going for an hour, Shannon. Relax.”
We squeeze our way out of the sanctuary and walk down the hall to a nearby classroom. There’s a chalkboard at the front and a big conference table in the middle of the room surrounded by chairs. Several books are scattered across its surface. I pick one up. On the black leather cover, gold lettering spells out, “The Book of Mormon”. After flipping through some pages, I realize that it not only resembles a Bible, but reads like one too. Hefty in weight and formal in language, I find it hard to believe that it was written less than 200 years ago. While Darwin was first compiling his theories on geology and extinction, Joseph Smith, Jr. was creating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After translating gold plates found through divine revelation, Smith published The Book of Mormon in 1830.
I run my finger down one of the first pages, which is what I could only describe as the table of contents. Instead of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—the usual stuffy English names—my fingertip passes an exotic arrangement of vowels. Nephi, Enos, Jarom, Omni, Mosiah, Alma, Helaman… the names sound familiar, but I’ve probably never heard them before. They sound beautiful, powerful. The pages are thin but seem expensive, like some sort of majestic tracing paper. I worry that my casual flipping of the pages isn’t reverant enough treatment of this sacred text. Then I notice Nate next to me, stacking the books like toy blocks, trying to make the tallest tower possible until the books come crashing down in his lap.
I think to myself, Man, I wish my church had Bibles this nice. Later I realize that we probably would if our congregants, too, tithed their annual earnings. Instead my church is tiny and will be forever burdened by financial instability. My church has a rotting steeple. Nate’s temple, a building located away from his church and reserved for important ceremonies, has a magnificent spire upon which stands a gilded Moroni, holding a shining trumpet. His arms oustretched, it looks as if the phrophet is saying, “Behold my stunning place of worship! Not only are my followers not going to hell, but their church is prettier than yours!”
Sunday School starts. Divided up by age group, an elder, an ordained male member of the church, teaches the lesson. The other students take a cue from Nate and stare at the table or pick at their clothing.
“So why does The Book of Mormon have so many war stories?” the elder asks.
The room is quiet. I say nothing, expecting someone else who has actually read the text to offer his or her perspective. The silence kills me. The eager literature student within me starts to squirm, desperately wanting to express my opinion. Despite being the only non-Mormon in the room, I fling up my hand and blurt, “War time causes societies to fall back on their traditional values!”
I’m embarrassed and expect the elder to look at me with disgust. Heaven forbid a heathen comment on the scripture. Instead he smiles.
“That’s right,” he says.
After Sunday School, Nate and I hop back into his car. I’ve gathered as much information as I possibly can about him but things still don’t make sense. Nate drinks tea, started dating girls before he was sixteen, indulges in violent movies, has no problem with homosexuality, is completely disdainful of community service, and has an up-and-coming radical feminist for a little sister. While he excludes typical profanities from his speech and never utters the Lord’s name in vain, he writes songs with titles like “Pedofeelings”, “Bird Crap”, and “I Like to Feast Upon the Innards of a Newly Born Baby Kitten”. Nate starts the car.
“So what’s your deal, Nate? I’ve been trying to understand it and it’s not like I’m trying to be critical but… how are you a Mormon?”
“How am I not?” He looks at me as if my question is completely moronic and pulls out of the parking lot.
“Beacause you don’t…” I try to find the right words. “You never served a mission or anything. You have no desire to be an elder. I mean… your sister and mom think that the Church is sexist. You guys don’t fit the Mormon definition.” I’m convinced that I’ve stumped him.
“That doesn’t matter, woman.” Nate isn’t phased.
“What? Why? Then why do you even bother being Mormon?” I pause my questioning and stare at the road. I look back at him and suddenly start talking rapidly. “I mean, it seems to make you guys happy. Your mom has some problems with the Church but she still goes and she seems to like it a lot and I kinda like it too. I mean, it seems like a really nice community and that’s why I always went to my church since it’s always nice to have a place where you can feel safe and be around people who you know and your family is also really close and that probably has something to do with the whole ‘being Mormon’ thing’ and family values and stuff so I guess all that matter is that—.” I stop again to catch my breath. “So I guess all that matter is that it seems to make you happy.”
Nate forcefully yanks the steering wheel to one side, almost clipping an old woman crossing the street. “Bravo, Shannon. You’re a genius.”