“Dear Reader,” Melissa Inouye opens her memoir, “I’ve always been fuzzy about deadlines, but in May 2017 when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, everything snapped into focus: ‘Oh shoot!’ I’m going to die.’ Suddenly thinking about the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything seemed terribly urgent. To be more precise, the project of writing about life and its conundrums seemed terribly urgent, because my children are young. … When one contemplates the possibility of being entirely absent, a few letters do not seem enough. This is why I began to think about writing a book: a literary form of food storage. … a stash of thoughts. …”
In this episode join Laura Harris Hales as she interviews Melissa Inouye about her perspectives on lived religion, the purpose of life, and what she has learned from studying global religious studies. She also discusses how to approach difficult topics with youth. Below are some pointers from Dr. Inouye:
“Five Ways to Respond When the Youth [and Others] Ask Tough Questions”
In many parts of our worldwide church, we are struggling to retain young people. The urgency of the issue can be seen in the numerous church-sponsored fora and addresses on issues like doubt and faith crisis. Part of this difficulty is related to the global problem of accommodating fast-paced cultural change and generational shifts; part of it is related to the advent of the Information Age; part of it may have to do with a fondness for certainty and aversion to questions in our local church cultures. Here I suggest that increased willingness to engage tough questions, as well as to be innovative and energetic in our responses, will create a renewed church culture in which young people—and indeed all who wrestle with hard questions—find the power and beauty of our collective church endeavor in today’s world
- Don’t dismiss them; take them seriously. The youth are the real investigators at church. They deserve thoughtful, respectful, loving answers. Remember, as Dieter F. Uchtdorf pointed out, the whole Church project started with a young person asking hard questions. As he put it, “I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions.” Hard questions open the door to inspiration and divine guidance.
- Be enthusiastic: “That’s a great question! I’m impressed that you asked!” We are trying to raise thoughtful, reflective young people, not robots. Help the youth see that the complexities and contradictions of the gospel can withstand rigorous exploration. We are not the Wizard of Oz. Things that are real and true can bear scrutiny.
- Remember that we are in the Information Age. As Elder Ballard says, “every possible point of view” on the Church, negative and positive, is available to the youth in a few clicks on their phone or computer. Educate yourself about hot-button topics by reading the Gospel Topics Essays, reading Saints, and checking out nuanced but faithful conversations such as the Big Questions Project at the Faith Matters Foundation. If you encounter new information or alternative views that make you uncomfortable, don’t panic. Give yourself time to develop a sense for evaluating which sources are reliable and also to develop empathy for people in their diverse situations. Information leads to knowledge which leads to understanding, though processes of sorting and refining require considerable effort.
- Understand that today’s youth are used to counting and comparing as a way to define equity and fairness. Take, for example, the awesome US women’s soccer team that has won numerous Olympic gold medals and World Cup championships. Everyone knows they rock. Everyone thinks it’s lame that the women are paid less than the men, who don’t win nearly as much. As observant youth sit in your congregation on Sunday and count how long women speak compared to how long men speak or compare the roles of women and girls to the roles of men and boys within the service, what conclusions will they draw? Are the voices and experiences of Latter-day Saints of color, or LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, present within the congregation?
I didn’t think about things like this when I was growing up. But today, it is hard for young people to un-see cultural manifestations of sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice. For example, seeing gender imbalances at church can make it more difficult for young Latter-day Saints to recognize the Spirit at work. There are many things ordinary members can do within the parameters of an existing policy to help re-balance our local congregational cultures. One great place to start thinking about this is Bonnie L. Oscarson’s April 2018 call to all ward council members to integrate the Young Women into the central work of the ward.
- Don’t freak out if you don’t have an easy or ready answer. If they ask a question about something for which you don’t have a good answer, validate their concerns. If you are having a hard time understanding why someone would struggle with a particular issue, connect them with someone in the ward or from your networks who can empathize from personal experience. Also remember that sometimes, hard questions are just hard questions. We, the Latter-day Saints, are not perfect. Nothing requiring human participation is perfect. We have made mistakes in the past and will make mistakes in the future. This is why we value the atonement, and why we covenant to work hard for Zion.
 For examples of recent church events addressing issues of doubt for young adults, see a September 2018 devotional addressing difficult questions in church history with Elder Cook and church historians Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow, a January 2019 devotional on doubt featuring Elder and Sister Renlund, a January 2019 devotional on doubt featuring General Authority Seventy Lawrence E. Corbridge, and a February 2019 speech by Elder Dallin H. Oaks acknowledging “matters of church history and doctrinal issues have led some . . . to inactivity.”
About Our Guest:
Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye is a senior lecturer in Asian studies at the University of Auckland. She received her PhD in Chinese history from Harvard University. Dr. Inouye’s research includes the history of Chinese Christianity, moral ideology in modern China, global charismatic religious movements, and women and religion. Her book China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church was published by Oxford University Press in January 2019. A member of the advisory board of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, Dr. Inouye is committed to the mutually reinforcing relationship between faith and learning. Her writings on Latter-day Saint life and faith have been published online and in print in Patheos, the Washington Post, Meridian Magazine, Square Two, and the Ensign. She and her husband, Joseph, have four noisy and joyful children, botanically nicknamed Bean, Sprout, Leaf, and Shoot.
Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast
Episode 110: The Global Church and Lived Religion with Melissa Inouye
Released August 14, 2019
This is not a verbatim transcript.
Some wording has been modified for clarity.
Laura Hales: Hello, this is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye to talk about her new book, Crossings: A Bald Asian-American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood (Not Necessarily in That Order). Melissa, let’s begin by having you tell us a little bit about your educational and personal background because both are integral to this book project.
Melissa Inouye: Thank you so much for having me. I grew up in Orange County, California, in an Asian-American family; my mother’s family is Chinese, and my father’s family is Japanese. I left home and went to college at Harvard University. I took two years off to serve a mission in Taiwan and after I graduated, I got married to my husband, Joseph McMullin. He happened to be in the same mission as me, but I always hasten to say we were never in the same area. We just knew each other in the MTC. For a year we were at BYU as he finished his final year, then we went to Boston, and I started the doctoral program at Harvard while he taught middle school. After two years he started law school at UCLA, we moved back to Los Angeles, and I finished my degree out of residence after that.
Eventually we were living in Hong Kong where my husband was a corporate lawyer, and I was at home with our four kids botanically nicknamed Bean, Sprout, Leaf, and Shoot. (And actually, the Shoot was born in Hong Kong.) Corporate law was really hard on family life. I think Hong Kong is a place where people work super hard. You combine that with corporate law, and he was just never home. He would have to leave to go to the office in the middle of church and so on, so we decided to switch. I went on the job market and got a fulltime job at the University of Auckland. He stayed with the kids, and we’re now still in Auckland. I studied Chinese history, especially the history of Chinese religious movements and popular morality. I also work in this young, but growing, subfield called Global Mormon Studies, which is the global study of the religious traditions that originated from Joseph Smith’s revelations. This includes not only The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but also groups like the Community of Christ and so on.
Laura Hales: You mentioned that you belong to this new and growing club of Global Mormon Studies. What are some of the challenges with studying global Mormonism or Latter-day Saint-ism?
Melissa Inouye: There are many challenges. One significant challenge is language. For example, there are over a hundred languages used in the church. Scholars can’t really understand sources and the experiences that the Latter-day Saints tell in person if we can’t understand their language. This linguistic fragmentation means that studies tend to skew toward the language that is easiest for the most people to work in, which is currently English. This leads to a related problem, which is that until recently, most work on the history of the church has focused on the United States experience, on congregations in the US, or missionaries from the US who go out into the mission field and come home. But recently more and more scholarship has been geared toward trying to tell the story of the Latter-day Saints from a more global perspective.
The final challenge is that Latter-day Saints tend to be people who are most interested in Latter-day Saints, so that means that we’re a little ghettoized. Sometimes we’re just talking to each other and nobody cares about us. But more and more work is being done to show the relevance of Global Mormon Studies for understanding global Christianity more broadly, which is where we’re really trying to take the field.
Laura Hales: When I was reading your book, I also realized there is a financial component involved and that a lot of scholars just can’t jump over that hurdle.
Melissa Inouye: Yeah, it’s very significant. And it’s not just about whether people who are trained in the US can live abroad and get language training. It’s also about opportunity costs of people who, for example, live in the Global South. To be someone who specializes in history is a pretty luxurious career—one that only works in a very wealthy, developed society, right? If you’re in Madagascar or the Philippines, there are probably other jobs that will be a better idea for you than becoming a Mormon studies scholar.
Melissa Inouye: That’s also a tricky thing in terms of the capacity of people to do work as the Latter-day Saint Church expands globally.
Laura Hales: Do you see that the church is going through any growing pains?
Melissa Inouye: Well, sometimes people who represent the central institutions of the church who tend to be English-speaking, North Americans make cultural mistakes when they travel abroad. This is inevitable. There’s no way that one person can become fluent in over 100 languages and cultures and systems of etiquette in one lifetime. Some things that are harmless or funny in one culture are rude or horrifying in another. For example, after I began lecturing at the University of Auckland, I was teaching in a room with this weird seating configuration. I told the students, “Let’s just sit on the tables.” The students told me that in Māori culture that’s like the worst thing you can do.
Melissa Inouye: It’s very rude and completely not okay. The building that we were in was actually the Māori Studies Building so that was even worse. These kinds of problems (huge gaps in cultural competence) are quite real, and sometimes we make these kinds of mistakes.
Another problem is that when we forget about how global our church is we develop a misunderstanding about where Zion is or who is supposed to live there. For example, sometimes otherwise well-meaning Latter-day Saints can express views that everyone in such a such a country is a criminal or people with a certain skin color are lazy. But, this is forgetting that we, the Latter-day Saints, live in most countries of the world. We all have the same values, watch the same general conference, and read the same holy books. It can be very painful to hear one’s brothers and sisters in the gospel express hatred or contempt for who you are, where you come from, or what you look like. That’s something that we have to work through and overcome.
Laura Hales: You wrote an article for the Mormon Studies Review. In this article, you used a metaphor to illustrate a helpful way we can view growth in the worldwide church. Would you like to share that metaphor with us?
Melissa Inouye: Sure. The way people tended to think about growth in the church in the past was that our roots were in Salt Lake City, or at least in Utah, definitely in America. Like a big oak tree the trunk grew big and strong and eventually the branches spread out, eventually reaching all over the place. The roots are here and this one place is nourished by this particular soil. That’s the oak tree paradigm, but I propose that the church’s global growth is more like that of a banyan tree. If you’ve lived in Asia, you know that banyans grow up, they grow out, and then they grow down. From the outstretched branches, you’ll see these little roots hanging like armpit hair. The roots grow downward, they get into the soil, and then they swell and create these thick trunks. In some areas of Asia, the forest spreads out for miles, and they’re all the same tree or the same few trees. The point is that wherever it is, in order to flourish, the church has to put down deep roots and absorb what’s in the local soil that has multiple centers and has multiple peripheries.
Laura Hales: The church would do this through their formal and informal institutions. How do you define institutions, and what do you see as their function?
Melissa Inouye: I define institutions as the persistent aspects or structures of congregational life, the well-worn ruts through which we tend to drive our carts. There are formal institutions like the Relief Society or the Young Women’s organization and so on. But there are also informal institutions that shape the life of a given church community and that always depends on where you are and who’s in that community. I think if we all think about a Latter-day Saint congregation with which we’re familiar, we know that there are people who are actually institutions—who run the show and who shape the character of the ward in a way that depends on more on their personalities and less on whatever their calling is at a given time. Sometimes the informal and the formal institutions intersect like when a certain person is called to be bishop or Relief Society president and so on. But my point about institutions is that Latter-day Saint collective life is much more than its formal ecclesiastical structures. Other informal institutions also set boundaries, make exceptions to find what’s appropriate, and so on.
Laura Hales: You say that current church structures have yet to tap into the potential power of integration of the marginal center and the central margins. How does this relate to the church’s global expansion?
Melissa Inouye: Well, currently we’re still quite America-centric, but this is changing in very hopeful ways. If you look at where the majority of people in our top leadership come from or where they live, North American experience or at least Euro-American experiences are very central. The kind of cultural gravity there is quite significant. This is a challenge in terms of where the church wants to be eventually as a global church. When I say the marginal center, it’s because the majority of the members of the church are actually outside North America, and the majority of church members experiences around the world, including in most parts of America, is as a very small minority. In some ways, you could say that Utah and Salt Lake City are kind of the center of the church because that is where our headquarters are located. It’s in Utah, for example, that are a lot of Latter-day Saint culture is influential. But in some ways, that situation is an extremely minority situation. Most Latter-day Saints don’t live in a place where their religious culture is extremely influential. Usually they’re a tiny minority. In that sense, the center itself, if you define that as Utah or the Wasatch Front, is marginal in a certain way because it’s quite different from how most Latter-day Saints experience their faith.
Laura Hales: You use this interesting term “glocalization” what does that mean?
Melissa Inouye: Glocalization is a phrase that has been coined recently by scholars. Some people hate it, some people like it, but it basically means that as the world becomes more globalized, it doesn’t become more homogenous. It doesn’t lose local character. Actually, globalization is a spur to local differentiation and distinctive development. So it combines global with local.
Laura Hales: To illustrate how the practice of Mormonism or Latter-day Saint-ism differs globally, you did this study of yearly Primary programs, looking at three programs held in Asia. What did you learn?
Melissa Inouye: It wasn’t technically a study, but rather it was more like a reflective essay. I experienced three different Primary programs one year as I moved from Hong Kong to New Zealand. I was struck by the differences between them. People often make the case that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is super centralized, very standardized, heavily correlated, and our experiences are very homogenized. The Primary presentation is an example of that. There’s a very specific format and specific lessons that lead up to this primary presentation. There are prescribed songs. There is the whole outline on how you are supposed to do the Primary presentation. Theoretically, this will be a very rubberstamp, cookie cutter kind of experience. But if you look at these three different Primary programs, you can see there’s some pretty significant differences. And who is there to do the program? The character of the Primary president, number of children, and the scale of the program can make a big difference. Both the formal and informal institutions of the church produce things that are quite unique, lively, and local.
Laura Hales: You mentioned earlier that most people live in areas where they are in a marginal religious position. How does our lay leadership structure create an environment in which strong local institutions shape the religious experience?
Melissa Inouye: Whoever shows up determines the character of a given ward or branch and that character can be very different, not just from country to country, but from unit to unit. For example, in New Zealand, I started out in a very large ward, and then we moved to a very small ward. The differences in those ward cultures was quite significant just because of the scale. Because we have a lay leadership, the character of the official and the unofficial church is drastically shaped by individual personalities.
Laura Hales: I love that phraseology: “Whoever shows up shapes the character of the congregation.” I think a lot of us sometimes feel uncomfortable socially, and we’re tempted not to show up, but that is definitely some good encouragement.
Let’s change gears now. Let’s talk about your book. What’s the significance of the title?
Melissa Inouye: The significance of the actual title, Crossings, not the subtitle, is that we use this word to describe when people go beyond existing boundaries. A cross-disciplinary study might integrate history and religious studies and maybe some social science if it’s really interesting. Crossings is also a word that we use to talk about going over divides like you cross over a bridge. Crossings is also a word we use for significant transitions or passages. Death is a sort of crossing into another place or another state of being. In my life I feel like I’ve experienced many of those different kinds of crossings, and I see how crossings are, I think, at the heart of what the gospel calls us to do.
Laura Hales: In the book you also mention that crossings is about personal and theological contradictions. How have the tensions made staying in the church worthwhile for you, Melissa?
Melissa Inouye: I’ve never liked video games because I don’t think they’re real. It’s kind of an artificial environment. No matter how complex they try to make the video game, you just know that it’s not real. What I appreciate about the Latter-day Saint tradition is that it is grounded in real people. It is animated by experiences that people have with God and the Holy Spirit and discipleship of Christ. Because we’re real people, we often mess up and make mistakes. If you look at our history, you can see that we’ve made mistakes in the past, and we know that we will make mistakes in the future. But I think that realness is very compelling. I think so often in the world we feel the need to reject organized religion because whenever you get a group of people together, they’re bound to mess up. We can see how organized religious traditions have messed up. Sometimes people want to jettison organized religion and go with something that’s a little more pure in their eyes, something that’s less susceptible to corruption, something that’s neater or cleaner, less messy, but I think often the “isms” people turn to because they’re more “tidy” are often not as real. I value things that I think are real and rooted in people and in our divine nature.
Laura Hales: Studying religion is what you do as a fulltime job. It’s your profession. You say that there are many ways to study religion. For this book, which method did you use?
Melissa Inouye: Well, this book is not really a study. This book is a collection of primary sources with a couple of essays thrown in. There are actual letters, lectures that I gave to my students, and there are some more formal essays that more conventionally talk through a problem.
Laura Hales: You talk about how you have explored tensions within the church. Your Uncle Charles gave you a piece of advice as you were seriously studying the truth claims of the church for the first time as a young adult. Here’s a quote from your Uncle Charles: “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.” What concept was your uncle trying to help you grasp with that statement?
Melissa Inouye: I think he was trying to point out the difference between reality and what was ideal and to show how what we wanted to be ideal was so powerful in shaping our reality. And also, to suggest that we’re not having these nonstop fantastic experiences with the spirit 24/7. That would be exhausting and probably impossible. I think he was saying if we could be patient and keep on working towards truth and working towards Christ and our Heavenly Parents, then we would find them.
Laura Hales: In these glimpses that you give us into your lived experience and your journey studying the church and its truth claims, you talk about familiar but unhealthful syllogisms. And then you give some more useful metaphors as we’re exploring the gospel. What have you found helpful and hurtful?
Melissa Inouye: I think that sometimes we think about faith and truth in the same way we think about a string of really cheap Christmas lights work. Now I know that Christmas light technology has really evolved, but I remember as a kid we would bring out all of the Christmas decorations. We would put the things on the tree, we’d wrap the lights around, and it’d be this big moment. We’d plug in the lights, and then the lights wouldn’t go on. My father would say, “Oh, maybe there’s a bulb broken.” If one bulb was broken, then it meant that the whole thing didn’t work. Sometimes when people are just learning about church history for the first time, they’ll find something that seems to them like it is broken, something troubling. For example, as it says in the Gospel Topics essays, Joseph Smith concealed some of his polygamous marriages from his wife, Emma. That can be very devastating the first time you encounter information like that about someone whom you thought was above reproach.
Melissa Inouye: Sometimes when you knock out a certain light, like the idea that Joseph Smith was beyond reproach, then the whole thing in your eyes doesn’t work, and just sets off this chain reaction. The Christmas-light-syllogism goes:If Joseph Smith wasn’t perfect, then the Book of Mormon cannot be the word of God, and this can’t be a church led by God. Therefore, the whole project is bogus. I think that’s an unhelpful metaphor because I don’t think that’s actually how faith works or how religious traditions work. They’re not a mechanism or a machine.
I like the metaphor I use in the book of religion being like sourdough starter. It’s like this colony of bacteria and yeast that is not very pure. It’s like when things are fermenting and actually going bad, right? Fermented and a bit stinky. But then, when you introduce them to a properly regulated mix of flour, water, and a little salt, then the sourdough works on this bread like leaven, and it makes really awesome bread. The point is that religious traditions are living things, they involve multiple organisms, and they work in a complimentary way. We can’t expect them to be pure or perfect, but we can use them for good things.
Laura Hales: I’ve seen the syllogism work both ways.
Melissa Inouye: Yes, it does. It goes the other way, too. Yeah, it’s really interesting.
Laura Hales: If the Book of Mormon is true, then everything Joseph Smith did was divinely inspired, and we shouldn’t question it or the other way, right? No, that’s wrong, so then the whole thing falls apart, right?
Melissa Inouye: Yeah, both of those. There is the positive Christmas light version and a negative Christmas light version, and both of those are fragile because you knock out one light and the whole thing doesn’t work.
Laura Hales: I got rid of that Christmas tree with the lights that go out. You told another parable called the Parable of the Pan, which I found amusing. Do you want to share that?
Melissa Inouye: Yeah. Well, so my cousin was researching cookware because she was getting married, and she said, “Have you heard that stainless steel pans contain toxins?” I was curious, so I googled stainless steel toxins, and I found this website that said stainless steel pans might seem safe to you, but they actually contain toxins. You can perform this simple test: boil a tablespoon of baking soda in your pan and see what horrible materials leach out. So I did this in a little sauce pan, which I love. I use it all the time to make hot chocolate, pasta sauce, and to heat things up. I boiled it in the pan, and then I did a comparison test with just dissolving baking soda into hot water. It’s like salty tasting, but it’s normal. Then, I tasted the water that was boiled in the pan with the baking soda, and it was like scraped nails. It was just terrible, and I spit it out and was horrified because I had been cooking my family’s food in this toxic pan.
Melissa Inouye: And I literally chucked it into the trash. I was like, “Yeah, there’s no way we can use this pan.” But then I got suspicious and tested every single pan that we had with this baking soda test. I laid them out on the floor and labeled them with what material they were made out of. Then, our whole family did a taste test. And even now, as I’m thinking about this, my body is having this yucky feeling. It’s like remembering drinking bike chains, magnet tea, and horseshoe toddy. It was just horrible so we spat that out. We all rinsed our mouths several times but that horrible taste stayed in our mouths for a long time.
And so then, I had this conundrum: “If all my pans are toxic, should we just never cook anymore?” Do we eat all raw food or buy a stone pan or something? I just didn’t know what to do. As I thought about it some more, I looked at the website again and noticed that this website sold titanium pans, which, unsurprisingly, did not react with baking soda when it boiled. I decided we should be able to cook stir-fried vegetables. This is important. Maybe this particular thing causes some things to leach out or maybe the test itself is designed to frighten. But recognizing the imperfection and the inherent yuckiness of the pan, I decided we have to keep on cooking. I think religion is that same way. It’s manmade, at least to some extent—its people, traditions. Nothing is perfect. Everything is a little problematic. Sometimes under shockingly commonplace circumstances, a bitter taste can leach out. There are hazards to a religious life, but there are also really good things to it as well. Like all this stuff that we cook in pans. I decided that for me the benefits outweighed the hazards.
Laura Hales: And don’t boil baking soda. You will get a chemical reaction.
Melissa Inouye: Right.
Laura Hales: I think you must have some really interesting Family Home Evenings.
Melissa Inouye: No, they’re just bouncing off the walls, and we never know what they hear.
Laura Hales: And tasting nasty water from pots.
Melissa Inouye: Well, that was very interesting.
Laura Hales: One stumbling point that some people have is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes some very bold truth claims, and as they start studying other religions, they see the good in those religions and that makes them question. For your PhD dissertation, you studied the True Jesus Church in China. Can you tell us a little bit about this Christian sect and how your studies helped you see the Latter-day Saint Church in a different light?
Melissa Inouye: The True Jesus Church in China is actually very similar to our church in that it’s a restorationist church grounded in a particular country—we were America; they are China—started by a charismatic founder who had a vision and was commanded by God to restore Christ’s one true church. It sounds pretty similar except for the True Jesus Church was founded in Beijing in 1917 as opposed to Joseph Smith in America. It was very interesting to study this church and to explore more broadly global restoration traditions. There are restoration traditions in Africa, for example. Other groups around the world at the turn of the 20th century were also restorationist like the classical Pentecostal movement. They were also trying to restore the primitive church. We’re not the only people to have a founder who has a vision in which he’s told to restore the one true church.
Melissa Inouye: As I was doing this research, I did think, “What makes us different? What makes us true?” I interviewed many members of the True Jesus Church for my dissertation research, and I found that they are kind people who are trying to follow Christ, who read the scriptures, pray, and worship. I’ve also studied Buddhism and other religious traditions where people worship the divine in different ways and try to access divine power in different ways. I respect all of those ways of being in touch with the divine. If you look at the contemporary situation, Latter-day Saints are 0.02% of the world’s population. There’s a lot out there that’s got to be good in the other 99.98%.
Laura Hales: And why would the Lord be silent to the rest of the world?
Melissa Inouye: Right? But I have found God here. Here is where I have learned to follow Christ. Here is where I feel the spirit. Here is where I’ve made covenants to my brothers and sisters in the temple. I think this is where God wants me to be. It is a place that is valid for seeking and finding God.
Laura Hales: In preparation for interviews, I’ve been known to academically stalk my interviewees by reading everything they’ve written in academic journals and to listen to their talks. I ran across an address you gave before the Mormon Transhumanist Association in 2018 that listeners can find on YouTube. I was fascinated by your discussion of the True Jesus Church in China that you included in the book. So if this interests any of our listeners, I suggest that you go to YouTube. I’ll put a link in our show notes. Melissa goes into great detail on some of the things she learned about this Christian church.
Let’s talk about lived religion because that is the focus of your book. What elements shape Latter-day Saint religious life?
Melissa Inouye: In the book I talk about this tension between charisma and organization. I use the analogy of electricity. Charisma comes from this understanding of the gifts of the spirit. What charismatic means is something that is touched by the Holy Spirit or by God’s power. So, for example, Joseph Smith’s first vision was charismatic, the dedication of the Kirtland temple where people spoke in tongues and saw angels—that is a kind of charismatic experience. On the other hand, you have organization or what we could also say is institutionalization. Examples of that are the handbook of instructions, which is a tool of organization and the church’s hierarchical structures or tools of organization and chains of authority and so on. So charisma is like the power that runs through an electric wire and organization is like the rubber insulation that stops and controls and contains it.
Melissa Inouye: It’s a tricky balance to have both, but you have to have both. If you have too much charisma, people will get burned, and things will get out of control. The movement will break down and splinter into little groups that are following their own respective prophets. If you have too much organization, then you smother the power of that religious experience and choke off the joy that people feel when they feel the Holy Spirit. As Latter-day Saints, we are a highly organized religious tradition, but we’re also highly charismatic. A good symbol of that is to look over here where we are at Temple Square. There is the temple, and then there is the Church Office Building. Those are two symbols of those things.
Laura Hales: You mentioned earlier that those who show up mold local religion. How are members both producers and consumers of religion?
Melissa Inouye: Many social scientists depict religious practitioners only as consumers of religion. Religions are like marketplace purveyors, and people decide whose religious goods they want to buy. But as we know, in the church we produce religion. We turn up and are the bishop or the Relief Society president or the Primary teacher. We teach, we preach from the pulpit, and we do things together for a religious purpose and sometimes not for religious purposes. We just do things together. Part of that is just our lay structure. Part of it is also the way in which religion is not just an ecclesiastical structure or an official institution. Religion is also culture. And we know modern-day saints are prodigious producers of culture.
Laura Hales: You echo a sentiment that Phil Barlow has talked about on this podcast before about the importance of growing and evolving and changing, especially as we expand globally. Why is change so important?
Melissa Inouye: Change is really important. Sometimes it’s a big pain in the neck, but as a problem it’s really the problem that we want to have because it’s the problem that religious movements get as they endure over time and expand over space. If we stop changing, that will mean that we have fizzled and that will be the end of our religious movement. If you look at church history, you see that we have changed very significantly over time. Since this is something that’s natural, let’s tackle the challenge with goodwill, not freak out, and see where we need to go in this next exciting phase of our life.
Laura Hales: I think most of us have been quite excited about the changes that we have seen in the church in the last couple of years, especially under President Nelson. You mentioned that change can come from the bottom up as well as from the top down. I think some of us are frustrated because we’d like our bottom up help to work a little bit more quickly. As I was reading this in your book, I thought, “Nobody takes my advice and suggestions.” What did you mean about our ability to make change from the bottom up?
Melissa Inouye: So from a strictly ecclesiastical, hierarchical point of view, it is correct that the church is an extremely top down organization, and there don’t really exist mechanisms for channels of communication from the bottom up. However, anyone who studies, for example, human physiology knows that a human body and indeed human health is dependent on much more than the vertical structure of the bones in the skeleton, right? We’re not just bones and skeletons. There’s a lot going on there. There are many vital processes, and the more we know about the human body, the more we realize that the invisible systems of the body, which are not necessarily vertical or structural, are nevertheless very well established and important systems. So, for example, everyone has colonies of bacteria, or microflora, that live inside of us and play a critical role in our survival. I suggest that culture is kind of like micro flora. To the extent that Latter-day Saints change our culture at the grassroots, we significantly change the church in the way in which other people experience their faith. I think there’s a lot of room for changing our culture, and these kinds of changes are extremely consequential.
Laura Hales: So maybe you weren’t referring so much to changing the formal institutions from the bottom up, but there are small things that we can do with our micro flora, and one of those things that you mentioned is to have tough conversations.
Melissa Inouye: Yes, I think so.
Laura Hales: They are very critical to helping us support each other as members of the church. You gave two examples that I want to review. The first one was where you talked about watching the 2008 general conference with your mother, and you listened to Sister Beck’s somewhat controversial address. I’ll let you take it from here. Tell us the story of that experience.
Melissa Inouye: That was President Julie Beck’s famous talk “Mothers Who Know.” I remember there were visuals. I think there were visuals of kids cleaning windows or something. I was watching this conference talk in my parent’s home. My mother was in a chair, and she was very weak at that time. She was tired from chemotherapy. It was the last year of her life. She was listening to this talk where President Beck talked about how we should be the best homemakers in the world or something like that. I made this kind of derisive sound at the end of the talk. My mother looked at me very wearily because she was tired, and she said, “Did you have any problem with that talk?” And I felt so bad, because my mother had been a traditional stay-at-home mother.
Melissa Inouye: She had devoted her life to raising me and my brothers. She had taught me to clean toilets. She taught me to sweep floors. Those are very important life skills, and I had hurt her with my derisive noise. Actually, when I thought about President Beck’s talk, I didn’t disagree that we should teach our kids to work and so on. It was just that I had approached it from a very partisan point of view. When I heard her say these various things and not to tick these other boxes that I wanted her to tick, I wrote the whole thing off as not being on the right platform, not being on my platform. And that was a big mistake. I think increasingly we live in a very partisan world in which we feel like if someone doesn’t present the whole package that we approve of, then that person’s thoughts or contributions or not worthwhile. But that’s very impoverishing. We can’t take advantage of a lot of good resources because they’re all unacceptable for one reason or another. But I think we can overcome that because we are Latter-day Saints, and we do have some very strong, compelling commonalities like our temple covenants and our baptismal covenants as a start. And beyond that, our desire to be disciples of Christ, the things we learned in Primary, and so on.
Laura Hales: You have a chapter entitled “What Ana Said” where you share another experience of engaging in a tough discussion. To me that seemed like a common scenario that’s happening more and more often as we function in our callings at church. Tell us a little bit about your story of Ana.
Melissa Inouye: Ana is a pseudonym for a little girl in my cousin’s ward who in the middle of a Sharing Time lesson on priesthood raise her hand and blurted out, “But women don’t get the priesthood, and the men are in charge of the women.” This is in the middle of Sharing Time. My cousin emailed me and asked, “What would you have said?” I didn’t know what to say. I think Anna at the time was 11 or something like that. In an age where you go to Target, and there are all these t-shirts that say “Girl Power” or “Play Soccer Like a Girl” with a super awesome soccer-kicking image, sometimes women’s and girl’s major experiences of noticing inequality in a gendered situation is at church. This is a problem that we need to address now.
Melissa Inouye: It’s, of course, above my pay grade to pronounce new doctrines for the church or to implement new policies. But as I said before, there are so many things that we can do within the existing institutional policies that we have to make our congregational culture a place where the young people who are the real investigators at church see that we are a place that values and respects women on par with men. That shouldn’t be an edgy goal, right? That should be pretty basic. I think we all have a little bit of squeamishness about anything involving gender or the word feminism because it’s been associated in the past with a certain political platform.
But this is not the situation today. The assumption is that men and women are basically equally competent and that there should not be discrimination against people because of their gender. There are so many things we can do in our existing church culture to more explicitly demonstrate what we actually believe. So, for example, the Gospel Topics essays talk about Heavenly Mother. This is like our secret weapon. This is a key, super important tool for being relevant in today’s world. Why don’t we use the secret weapon more? Why is it a secret weapon? It shouldn’t be a secret. And if you remember President Nelson’s April general conference talk, he mentioned “the covenant path back to our Heavenly Parents.” If President Nelson can use the term Heavenly Parents, I’m sure we can all use the term Heavenly Parents. It’s little things like this, which maximize the resources that we have to demonstrate the relevance and the spiritual authority of women that are so important.
Laura Hales: I loved Ana’s story. I thought, “Here is an 11 year old who’s engaging with the doctrine, and she probably just didn’t come out with that statement on her own. She’s probably discussing this at home with her parents.” As leaders, I think we need to be prepared to have those kind of questions asked in church without going, “Oh, my, gosh. What am I going to do?” Or brushing them aside. Where else is a better place to talk about these things and create a safe place for people to question.
What would you like readers to take away from your memoir, or your glimpses into your life, that you recorded in your book Crossings?
Melissa Inouye: I hope that people will have a sense that life can be super messy. It can be very hard. It can be full of contradictions. It can still be worthwhile, and it can still be a place where God speaks to us. Contradictions are not necessarily deal breakers. They can simply be indications that what we’re doing is real and worthwhile.
Laura Hales: Thank you, Melissa, for visiting with me today and coming all the way from New Zealand.
Melissa Inouye: Oh, that’s right. I came just for this podcast.
Laura Hales: Well, maybe not, but thank you.
Melissa Inouye: You’re welcome.
Disclaimer: Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of Latter-day Saint Church leaders, policies, or practices.