I had been suckered into donating platelets, which meant I was going to be stuck in a chair with needles in my arms for two and a half hours. Fortunately, the Red Cross provides Netflix on a little screen for entertainment. But, since you can’t move your arms, whatever you pick, you’re stuck with it. As I scrolled through the offerings, I remembered that some friends had suggested I watch the Midnight Mass television series. So, I took a leap of faith and watched two episodes while a machine sucked blood out of one arm and injected it back through the other.
I’ll have to admit that, even after two episodes, I wasn’t quite sure what the show was about. But one thing about it really caught my attention: How seriously the show takes religious people. I was especially taken by some conversations between a pastor and the atheist protagonist of the show. As they discussed their conflicting worldviews, I realized that the show wasn’t trying to make me decide who was right. Instead, it was pointing to thoughts beyond what the two characters were talking about.
It was refreshing. Even nourishing. I realized that in popular media, religious characters are usually two-dimensional comedic characters or villains. And it’s apparently very noticeable. Last Sunday my elders quorum was discussing a general conference talk by Kevin W. Pearson where he said, “As harsh and hateful criticism is increasingly leveled at the Savior’s Church and those who follow Him, our discipleship will require a greater willingness to straighten and strengthen our spiritual spines and heed them not.” I can see how religious people would feel dismissed, even criticized, in popular television.
But it occurred to me that it might largely be our own fault.
The reason the religious characters in Midnight Mass were interesting was because we got to see them bring their faith into an eloquent, passionate, robust conversation. Once the initial volley was over, the pastor and the atheist didn’t just continue to entrench themselves in their original positions, instead they started to respond to each other in a way that let you know they were actually listening to each other. Heeding each other. And through their responses they started to build a relationship.
How often does that kind of thing happen when religious people talk with non-religious people? How often do we progress beyond preaching into listening, then to responding, and, soon, into mutual enrichment and relationship building?
For example, there was a guy in my grad school program who was a very committed Christian. He was never shy about it, and I admired his willingness to be himself in an otherwise largely religion-free group. But whenever I got too close to religion with him, it would turn into a one-way conversation: he would preach at me.
On the other hand, I had a film teacher who, though he had a Jewish background, was quite secular. However, he ran a Jewish film festival in town, which was kind of amazing because this was Fairbanks, Alaska. I can’t imagine there was much of an audience. It was obviously a labor of love for him. One year, I watched some of the movies he brought in and was amazed by how, instead of preaching, they explored Jewish lives and struggles. For a few years after that, my professor and I had a lot of religious conversations. And he helped me enrich my idea of both religion and Mormonism. Toward the end of my stay, I published a personal essay about holding the priesthood in Dialogue and he was one of the few people I felt I could share it with.
So, I guess my response to Elder Pearson is, “If we want less criticism leveled at us—if we want to be heeded—shouldn’t we heed in return?”
I know that the LDS Church has lately been encouraging its members to “Love, share, invite,” but “invite” implies that the person we are speaking with must come to where we are. I wonder if we shouldn’t reverse it. Invite into conversation, engage in mutual sharing, then learn to love through that sharing.
It’s certainly not a new concept in Mormonism. Brigham Young said it right out loud: “Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church (Jesus, their Elder Brother, being at their head) to gather [it] up.”
Being enriched by conversations with people outside the church—even outside religion—is both useful and divine. We seek to enrich and to be enriched.
What if, when non-religious people thought of Mormons, they thought, “They’re good listeners, and the world always gets more interesting when I talk with them.” Their criticisms would probably just drop away, and we could straighten and strengthen our spiritual spines through robust conversation and posture-friendly sitting habits.