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Is the Church true? Are its teachings correct?

These are the questions that I asked myself as a teenager. I was fairly diligent and non-rebellious as far as teenagers go. I worked hard to please my parents, Church leaders, high school teachers. I practiced the piano, I memorized scriptures, I studied for tests in history and chemistry and calculus. I wasn’t just going through the motions to please others, either. I loved learning about the world; I wanted to learn to know God.

And yet at that time, I felt that there was tension between the two major tracks of learning in my life (learning how to interpret the world as an educated person, and learning how to become a mature member of the Church). For instance, my biology textbook talked about the theory of evolution as the widely accepted view of how human life came to be. But when I questioned my Sunday School teacher on evolution, he gave me a dismissive look and said, “Melissa, do you really think that we came from monkeys?”

Now, this Sunday School teacher was—like all Mormons at the local level—doing his job as a volunteer. Actually, he was a conscript. A local bishop appointed him to the job. This Sunday School teacher wasn’t a scientist, either. So I didn’t see him as the final authority on whether the claims of Mormonism could harmonize with the claims of science.

However, it troubled me that contradictions seemed to exist among “the things that I knew” as an educated member of the Church. It also troubled me that others also sought to draw attention to contradictions within my faith. I was aware that some of my Christian friends had anti-Mormon lessons at their church youth groups. Clearly, what they had learned led them to feel contempt and derision for my deeply held beliefs. One of them told my brother that, as a Mormon, he was “living a lie.”

Therefore, to my high school self, the questions “Is the Church true? Are its teachings correct?” were not only very important, but also rather terrifying because it seemed that the validity of so many other things also hinged on these questions. I knew that I would have to figure this out, but at the same time I didn’t want to. I was afraid of what I perceived to be a zero-sum contest between my religious truth and “everybody else’s truth.” What if the Church lost? And then what could I believe, and who would I be?

“There are a lot of stories in the world, but Mormonism is the story that I want to be true. To the extent that it is not, I will make it true.”

For help I turned to my “crazy Uncle Charles,” as he called himself: my dad’s little brother, a Stanford-and-Harvard-educated professor of Japanese literature at Tufts University. [Uncle Charles is also featured on the Mormon Scholars Testify website, and I commend to you his essay, which is much more eloquent and articulate than mine.] I told him about my intellectual doubts about Mormonism’s claims. In the sort of long, belabored emails that high school students with Big Questions are wont to write, I laid out all of my doubts: What about evolution? What about blacks and the priesthood? What about polygamy? What about Joseph Smith saying that there were five-foot-high Quakers living on the moon [or something like that]?

Uncle Charles replied that when he was an undergraduate, he, too, had had doubts. He had gone to another Latter-day Saint professor for help. This professor had told him that there were a lot of stories in the world, but the Mormon story was the one that he wanted to be true. Uncle Charles concluded his message with the statement, “There are a lot of stories in the world, but the Mormon story is the one I want to be true. To the extent that it is not, I will make it true.”

At the time, I read this as a sort of well-meaning self-deception, kind of like what happens with the Santa Claus story. Santa Claus doesn’t really exist, but for kids who believe in Santa Claus, he does. Wow! He flies around the sky in a sleigh drawn by reindeer! He fits down the chimney and magically leaves presents with tags signed in parents’ handwriting! That’s great and magical for, say, five year-olds, but for everyone else (and for those five year-olds whose parents have let them in on one of life’s harsh realities) it’s just another tender falsehood. To say something like, “to the extent that it is not, I will make it true” sounded foolish and also a little arrogant. You can’t make a religion “true” in the same way that you can pull off the Santa Claus act. There had to be “a right answer” that was definitely and completely right.

At the same time, I didn’t really know that there was a right or a wrong answer. As a sophomore at Harvard College, I took a moral reasoning class that pitted the world’s great moral philosophers against each other on the question of whether a belief in God was necessary for the formation of moral laws. Everything I read sounded about right to me, even when the syllabus set philosophers up to directly contradict each other. I read A and agreed with A. Then I read B and agreed with B.

In the midst of my ambivalence, I was ultimately comforted by Uncle Charles’s endorsement, incomplete as it seemed to me at the time. Maybe there were some things about religion that weren’t clear to me at the moment, but Uncle Charles was a pretty smart person. I still knew for a fact that the key to what I loved most about my wonderful extended family was the common faith that we all shared in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as interpreted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I knew for a fact that I had felt the Spirit’s powerful witness—not all the time, but enough times to make a difference. Maybe I would figure things out someday.

I testify that this message is true. Will you follow Jesus Christ and be baptized into His church?

I turned in my mission papers and was called to Taiwan. I had just finished my junior year as an East Asian Studies major with a specialization in Chinese literature and I hit the ground running in terms of language. At the Missionary Training Center (MTC), where new missionaries go to acquire languages, doctrine, and psychological resilience, my teachers dispatched me to study Chinese with Elder McMullin, a missionary with thick, owlish glasses and a generally nerdy demeanor, who had previously been an exchange student in China. For the sake of propriety, our teachers kept the classroom doors ajar and had us move our desks into the well-trafficked hallway. We memorized discussions and waited impatiently for the opportunity to leave the MTC for Taiwan. I must admit that my eagerness to leave arose partially from narcissistic self-assurance: I already speak and read Chinese! I already know the Confucian classics as well as the Bible and the Book of Mormon! Taiwan needs me! The Lord needs me! Here I am, send Me!

I got to Taiwan, was assigned a trainer, and found that I had a good deal to learn. In the first place, my knowledge of Chinese religious and philosophical traditions was not the secret conversionary weapon that I’d imagined it would be, but actually a hindrance. I would try to talk to people about the Dao (the Way), or about the bodhisattva’s ultimate sacrifice, and draw connections to the conclusion that whoever it was to whom I was speaking should join my church. However, I soon found that while comparative philosophy was interesting, it didn’t demand that anyone change anything about their lives—myself included. My companion and I invited many people to accept Jesus Christ and be baptized, and some accepted, but I didn’t feel a sense of certainty about the presence of the Holy Spirit in my work as a missionary. I worked hard, studied hard, prayed hard. But in many ways, despite my “successes” as a missionary in terms of logging hours and baptizing converts, during the first part of my mission I was actually missing the point.

Create in me a clean heart, O Lord; and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalms 51:10)

After a while, my many failures and shortcomings as a missionary and as a person became more apparent to me. I’m not quite sure how this happened or how long it took, but I do recall one event from this period of self-reflection. It was the day I picked up a new companion from the train station in Tainan. She was a new missionary who had only been out for six weeks. On the bike ride home from the train station—suitcases strapped to our back racks with bike tire inner tubes, motorcycles and giant trucks rumbling past in clouds of black exhaust—I found out that she hated riding a bike in a skirt, disliked Chinese food, was struggling with Chinese, and didn’t like doing missionary work. My response was something like, “Tough. We’re missionaries, we work hard, and we love it. So just get over it.” Shortly thereafter, as we left the apartment and paused at the door to pray, I looked up and saw my companion with tears streaming down her face, weeping. I thought to myself: How can someone who is supposed to be representing Jesus Christ be the kind of person who fails to take care of someone who needs extra love and support?

I decided that of all things, being a better disciple of Christ, and not the statistics showing “how hard I worked,” should be the measure of my success as a missionary. As I rode my bike from appointment to appointment, I repeated in my head a scripture from Psalms: Create in me a clean heart, O Lord; and renew a right spirit within me.

I had the good fortune to spend the last nine months of my mission in the western district of the city of Tainan. The members of the Church there were so dedicated and generous. I came to know the families and individuals in the ward well enough to understand how to serve them better. I loved them for their diverse gifts and personalities and for their desire to follow Christ.

I also became well acquainted with Tainan’s neighborhoods and cultural institutions, including its religious institutions. My companion and I went every week to a nursing home run by a Catholic nunnery and helped the nuns do the laundry. We hung damp sheets and adult-sized cloth diapers to dry. Sometimes we helped to iron the priests’ collared shirts. The nun with whom we worked most often told me how she had been called to serve God when she was a young woman about my age who was engaged to be married. She was an American woman, cheerful and hardworking as she labored in this part of God’s vineyard. I felt certain that God appreciated and accepted her sacrifices. I was also beginning to feel certain that God appreciated and accepted the sacrifices that I was making as a missionary. I experienced the good fruits of the Spirit in the happiness I felt, in the joy and love that welled up spontaneously in me like a miracle, like a superpower, like a fountain of living water.

When I returned from my mission and resumed my undergraduate studies, I found that I had become a better student. I was less easily swayed by first this and then that forceful argument. I was able to think critically and exercise judgment. I was more invested in the work of studying and less easily distracted. I decided to apply for a Ph.D. in Chinese history and was accepted to the program at Harvard.

Church history has some sticky spots, and the Church sure is a patriarchal, conservative institution, but I really love my husband.

I deferred Ph.D. studies for one year because I ended up engaged to Elder McMullin, the nerdy, skinny elder who had been my Chinese study partner in the MTC. During our engagement, I participated in a summer research seminar at the Smith Institute for Church History at BYU. It was the first time I had ever studied Mormon history in-depth.

Over the course of the summer, as I delved through history books and primary sources, I was alternatively inspired, impressed, intrigued, and shocked. I began to see that the early Saints had been flawed human beings like all of us. I learned that early leaders such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had made missteps in the course of their leadership. I learned that Church culture, organization, policies, and even doctrines have been subject to shifts over time. I learned more about the Church’s nineteenth century practice of plural marriage, which is a very difficult subject for nearly all Mormon women, no matter how orthodox. Finally, I confronted the reality that in terms of its formal doctrinal and administrative structure, the Church—past and present—is a patriarchal and very conservative organization. This reality is not a challenge for many members of the Church, and it is not a significant challenge for me now. However, it was a challenge for me at the time, as I prepared for marriage in the temple and anticipated having to submit to the various aspects of the temple liturgy that reinforced this patriarchal order.

At the same time, I was in love with my fiancé Joseph, the former Elder McMullin. He was intelligent, whimsical, even-tempered, and generous. We had many shared interests, including our shared experience as missionaries in the Taiwan Kaohsiung Mission and our interest in China and the Chinese language. He was supportive of my plans for pursuing a doctorate and later a professional career while also raising a family. He was deeply committed to following Christ, serving in the Church, and fulfilling the responsibilities of a husband and a father. He was in love with me. Intellectual concerns about patriarchal liturgies notwithstanding, I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful than being married to Joseph for time and all eternity. I was sure that our marriage would be a partnership of equals. Furthermore, I knew that so much of what I valued about who he was, including why he valued who I was, was directly linked to his upbringing as a Latter-day Saint.

So, on my wedding day, I thought: Patriarchy, smatriarchy. We’ve been married for eight years now—we’ve had three kids along the way—and it’s been wonderful. I don’t mean for this to devolve into a hubbi-mony: “I know my husband is true.” What I’m trying to say is that the formal structures of a religion can be very different from the everyday practice of that religion. Focusing on the formal structures alone yields an incomplete picture.

There are a lot of stories in the world, and they all have sticky spots.

When I went back to Harvard for the Ph.D., I studied the history of Christianity in China and was based in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. During seven years of taking classes, preparing general examinations, conducting field research, and writing my dissertation, I studied the history of religious movements from the great world religious traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam. I examined numerous historical accounts showing how these religious traditions have also had leaders who made missteps in the course of their leadership, that these religious traditions have also been subject to shifts and swings over time, and that—generally speaking—these religious traditions in their various global and historical manifestations have tended to be quite patriarchal and very conservative.

In the context of the world’s religious traditions, I didn’t see anything particularly problematic about Mormonism. If there is any reason why Mormonism seems more vulnerable to intellectual criticism than other major world religions, it is because Mormon history begins relatively recently. The miracle of a virgin getting pregnant is no more believable than the miracle of a fourteen-year-old boy seeing God and Jesus Christ in a vision. The “problem” with the Mormon miracles is simply that they haven’t been shored up by thousands of years of religious tradition. But that problem lies in the eyes of beholders who are willing to withhold scrutiny from “old” but not “new” religious claims, not in the miracles themselves.

Learning about how religious texts are created, translated, and disseminated from place to place and from culture to culture also helped me to appreciate the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. I’ve read many accounts of people who have left the Church for lack of archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon in the Americas, “therefore the Book of Mormon is not an accurate historical record, therefore Joseph Smith wasn’t a prophet, therefore the religion that he founded is all bogus.” Or I’ve heard of people who say they left the Church because they researched this or that prophecy made by Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants and found that it never came to pass, “therefore Joseph Smith wasn’t a prophet, therefore the religion that he founded is all bogus.”

There was a time in my life when I would have thought about religion in this same uncompromisingly syllogistic way, as if a religious system is a string of cheap Christmas tree lights. If one light gets broken, the whole string is out. This was what was in my mind when, as a high school student, I asked my Uncle Charles: Is the Church true? Are its claims correct? In my mind, one incorrect claim, such as Joseph Smith’s alleged statement that the moon was inhabited by people dressed like Quakers, could set off the whole chain reaction that ended with my faith being bogus. To me at the time, Uncle Charles’s response, “To the extent that [the Church is] not [true], I will make it true,” was small comfort. If something is bogus, how can you do anything to make it true?

But I now have a different perspective on this issue of religious claims. From a scholarly perspective, most religious claims are by nature miraculous and indefensible from an empirical point of view. When good primary sources exist, religious founders all turn out to be real people, not perfect beings. Religious texts and systems of doctrine are all problematic in their own way, from the Bible to the Mahayana Buddhist sutras to the Koran. Maybe this is what Uncle Charles meant when he alluded to ways in which the Church might not be “true” according to my line of thinking at the time. Maybe when he said, “I will make it true,” he was simply speaking of the initiative required to nurture and exercise faith. “It’s not a spectator sport,” he said on a subsequent occasion, referring to religious life as a Mormon. I, too, have learned about the work of faith: that it is neverending, sometimes arduous, and that it has great value. It is work worth doing.

Instead of a string of Christmas tree lights, perhaps a better metaphor for how I see The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a building. To last, a building must have a good foundation. If it has a solid foundation, it can be built taller and larger, retrofitted and remodeled as use dictates. But if it has a shoddy foundation, it will be impossible for the building to endure, no matter how determined the builders. It will simply fall apart or sink into the soil. To me, the foundation of the Church was laid by the prophet Joseph Smith, his interpretation of the Bible and the Christian tradition, his revelation of humankind’s closeness to God, and the new scriptures that he brought forth, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. No matter how ungainly or flawed it may appear to some, the foundation of Mormonism continues to withstand the stresses of expansion and change.

There are a lot of stories in the world, and some of them are very similar to the Mormon story.

I wrote my dissertation on the history of the True Jesus Church, a Chinese Christian church with a founding story that Mormons find familiar: A man considered himself a Christian and read the Bible, but looked at the numerous Christian denominations and wasn’t sure that any of them represented the church that Jesus had founded. One day he had a vision in which Jesus spoke to him and commanded him to restore Christ’s true church. So in Beijing in 1917, Wei Enbo founded the one true church: the True Jesus Church. Same story, different punchline.

During my research, I became personally acquainted with many members of the True Jesus Church who were moral, intelligent, and in many cases impossibly kind to me, the “Gentile” researcher. I was certain that they were truly striving to follow Christ. I heard their testimonies of God’s love and care. Just as one hears in LDS General Conference or church publications, in the course of my research on religious experience in the True Jesus Church I heard and read many stories of miraculous healings, divine intervention, guidance given in answer to prayer. I was certain that church members were not lying when they recounted miraculous or life-changing manifestations of God’s power in their interviews. Why should they be? These were people of faith, and they saw the Holy Spirit at work in their lives.

The resemblance of the True Jesus Church to the church to which I belonged, along with the respect that I felt for the True Jesus Church members’ faith, provoked much reflection. If the Mormon story is not entirely novel, I thought, what is it that makes it different? What makes it matter? What makes it true?

Religions are more than just stories. So is truth.

One thing that I have learned as a scholar of religion is that religions are more than just “stories”. That is, a religion is much more than simply the scriptures, recorded teachings of religious leaders, institutional policies, and popular narratives that explain the state of the world and humankind’s place in it. Religion includes what people do, what people eat, when they pray and what material objects they use to pray, how they decorate their houses and how they build sacred places. Religion is how people feel, what they see in visions that no one else can see, how they make friends and what they do to make amends to those whom they have offended. Religion is people’s lived experiences, which are impossible to represent with a single list of doctrines or a single narrative. To understand religion, a scholar must encounter it on its own terms and according to the understanding of its believers, although understanding of course is not limited to this alone. This view is the state of the field in religious studies.

Telling stories is important, but I don’t think that any story that we try to tell about God can be complete as a “truth” in itself. To me, the way truths can be manifest in lived experience is a more valid measure of what is true, real, or from God. Who cares whether something is “true” by any abstract measure, including intellectual or theological argument, if it cannot be realized in our daily work, our bodies, or, most importantly, our relationships with our fellow beings? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that what people did was more important than what people said, and that people could be known by their fruits. I think that the ultimate responsibility for whether someone grows into the measure of a true disciple of Christ lies with that individual herself, not her religion. However, religions teach us what is possible, what is expected, what we can become. They set parameters and create the conditions for our growth.

This is why I think that Mormonism is the most amazing religious system that I have ever encountered, professionally or personally. As I have matured as a scholar and have gained a deeper knowledge of religions and religious believers, especially global Christian movements, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for Mormonism as a religious system based on powerful and compelling ideas and organized in a unique and compelling way that helps people in real life, that evolves over time, and that will endure. More importantly, however, my years of experience as a member of the Church have developed my testimony that the Church is an inspired organization where people can learn about Christ not only through prayer and study of the scriptures, but through continuous opportunities to yield, to serve, and to express gratitude. I know for a fact that the Church and its members are not perfect. As a people and as an institution, we’ve come a long way and we still have a long way to go. As a group, Mormons are probably no better than other people, be they Jews or Buddhists or atheists, who are committed to doing what is right even though it is hard, including loving one’s fellow beings as one’s self. I have good friends who belong to other faiths or who have left the faith traditions within which they were raised; they are moral, kind, wonderful people, and, because of them, the world is a better place. I can’t speak for them. What I can do is speak from my own experience. I testify that the Church is a divinely inspired organization, that Joseph Smith was a prophet who received divine revelation, and that the ordinances we receive and the covenants that we make within the Church have divine authority. I value the Church and I am so grateful to be a Latter-day Saint.

O then, is this not real? (Alma 32:35)

As I’ve continued to learn and grow as a person, as a member of the Church, and as a parent, I’ve been blessed with many wonderful opportunities to feel the active presence of the Spirit: the powerful, transforming awareness that God exists and is mindful of us. I have been inspired by the patterns and the commandments set forth in our scriptures, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. On countless occasions I have witnessed the Spirit working in people’s lives: giving them words of power and blessing, expanding their capability to be humble and generous, transforming enemies into friends. I am grateful that my life as a Latter-day Saint has helped me to develop a relationship with God and has defined the scope of this relationship in such marvelously limitless ways. I am grateful for the discipline that we learn as Latter-day Saints: for the laws of the fast, of the Sabbath, of the Word of Wisdom, and of tithing. I know that today, as in days of old, prophets still exhort in the name of God for people to repent and to become better.

There are still many things that I don’t completely understand about how the world works or doesn’t work and what God wants us to do about it. There are still many things that I don’t completely understand about how the Church works, or about the way that Mormons did or thought about things decades or centuries ago.

And yet my life experiences and education as a scholar have led me to treasure the blessings in my life: the fruits of the restored gospel in a world where such fruit has great value. As the prophet Alma says in his sermon about a seed that is planted, that grows, and that bears good fruit, “O then, is this not real?”

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Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye earned her Ph.D. in Chinese history from Harvard University in 2011. While researching and writing her dissertation, “Miraculous Mundane: The True Jesus Church and Chinese Christianity in the Twentieth Century,” she lived in Xiamen, China, and was an affiliate of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences from 2009-2010. Her dissertation research project was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Foreign Languages and Area Studies Dissertation Fellowship and by the Religious Research Association’s Constant R. Jacquet Research Award. Melissa taught in the history departments of Loyola Marymount University and California State University, Los Angeles, from 2006-2008. In 2003 she graduated magna cum laude in East Asian Studies from Harvard College, delivering the Harvard Oration at the Class Day graduation exercises.

Melissa currently serves as co-director of the Mormon Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Her journalistic work and creative writing have been published in The Far Eastern Economic Review, the NPR show Here and Now, and various literary journals and blogs. She is the mother of three children. She and her family live in Hong Kong, where she is engaged in additional research in the archives of Hong Kong Baptist University to prepare her dissertation manuscript for publication in book form. jingshangmu@gmail.com.

Posted January 2012