Recently I made some noise on Facebook about wanting to join a Mormon blog. When the hoped-for bidding war failed to ensue, some friends suggested I start a new “outside looking in” blog, offering a Gentile perspective on Mormon issues. Even setting aside the suggestion’s unfortunate voyeuristic connotations, I immediately knew it wasn’t for me. Mormons, you see, have never made me feel like anything but part of the family. Well, occasionally the weird in-law who makes everyone slightly uncomfortable at Thanksgiving dinner. But family just the same.
For several months in high school, I pried myself out of bed before the crack of dawn every morning to attend early morning seminary with my “it’s-complicated”, the bishop’s daughter. My seminary teacher, who knew I was a Protestant, invited me one day to give a devotional. I don’t ordinarily get nervous about public speaking, but my palms sweated and my voice quavered as I recited a short lesson about service from the NIV. Yes, I know: the NIV. I also quoted too many verses, so the Mormon kids had to rifle their onionskin pages at a furious pace to keep up. When I finished, Sister Clegg just beamed at me in her grandmotherly fashion and said, “Thank you, Chris. That was lovely.” I smiled weakly, and my heart felt warm.
Judging by his spiritual gift for bridge-building, Dr. Bushman should have been an engineer. In his courses at CGU, he encouraged both Mormons and non-Mormons to speak from their own perspectives and in their own voices. But he also gently shepherded us toward a quest for a common language—for questions that could be meaningful to all of us without being divisive. Because we all liked and respected each other, speaking in our own voices was a celebration of difference rather than a polemical exercise.
The ultimate test of this approach came last year, when I and my ex-Mormon friend Mike Reed were accepted (in more ways than one) to Bushman and Givens’s BYU summer seminar. The seminar was held in the Maxwell Institute, a longstanding bastion of strident apologetics. Mike—who by the way is quite proud of his new BYU photo ID with earrings and a goatee—had only applied as a joke. I still remember his incredulous tone when he told me the news. Our presence, unquestionably, stretched a few people. One participant asked us outright what two non-believers were even doing there. But the brilliant thing? When we explained it, this person got it. And over the course of the six weeks, Mike and I got a few things, too. I left, in the end, with a deepened respect for Mormons, a wonderful new group of friends, and some of the best memories of my life.
So—an outsider blog? After how I’ve been welcomed in? It would be ungrateful. The suggestion, though, got me thinking. Could I start an online community in the spirit of CGU? Could the open and friendly atmosphere of the seminar be replicated online? I decided to give it a try. With the help of Bridget Jack Jeffries, I typed up an invitation and a list of potential contributors for what we tentatively titled a Mormon Studies Roundtable. I trembled less as I sent the invitation than when I gave that devotional all those years ago, but the response was no less heartwarming. Nearly everyone we invited agreed to participate. Faithful Mormons were undaunted by the invitation’s all-Gentile authorship. “Intellectual kinship,” to borrow Bushman’s phrase, had triumphed over the stigma of labels. A blog was born.