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Friday, March 28, 2008
An Interview with Sarah Taylor
So, we recently discussed the idea of posting interviews with women who are involved in one way or another with the emerging or Emergent church. I thought I'd jump-start this idea with an interview I recently had with my friend Sarah Taylor. To the best of my knowledge, Sarah does not consider herself to be Emergent. She is, however, long-time participant at the The Ooze's message boards where I have often seen her endorse ideas related to the emerging church. Sarah is a student at Brigham Young University. Recently, I spoke with her about her experiences at BYU as someone who is not a Latter-day Saint.

Lydia Schoch: What made you decide to attend BYU?

Sarah Taylor: The idea of attending an LDS university struck me as novel, but theclincher was really the price; BYU provides a great education for a fraction of what similar schools cost.

Do the people you've met at BYU prefer to be referred to as "Mormons," "Latter-day Saints" or something else entirely?

Most prefer to be called Latter-day Saints (at least by outsiders). Many Latter-day Saints call themselves "Mormons," but the more respectful term is definitely "Latter-day Saints."

Gordon B. Hinckley, the President of the Latter-Day Saints, died recently. What was your first reaction when you heard of his death? How did your classmates react?

I think the moment I heard about the death of President Hinckley (is it weird that I call him that?) is one of those moments that will end up being etched in my mind forever, which is strange to me, considering that I'd never heard of him a mere three years ago. Many Latter-day Saints my age don't remember a time when he wasn't leading the LDS Church, so it was a big deal for everyone around me. My first reaction was probably mild shock - mild, because he was 97 years old, for goodness' sake, and shock, because he's a major figure in the lives of everyone around me and because it always surprises me when people of whom I know die. Probably my next thought was to wonder what the atmosphere would be at school the next day. And I wondered what the protocol was for the death of a prophet, how the succession would take place, etc.

I'm taking a Book of Mormon class this semester, and my professor threw out his lesson the day following President Hinckley's death and let the class discuss it. Most students said they felt happy for President Hinckley that he was reunited with his wife, some cried and said he'd influenced their lives in major ways, many bore their testimonies that he was a prophet and talked about when they'd first sensed the Spirit confirm that for them, and some asked questions about what would happen now with the leadership of the LDS Church. The general mood was sombre on campus that day and the next, and many student missed classes that week to attend his funeral. I was probably most surprised by the students who had been greatly personally influenced by President Hinckley. I don't know why that surprised me, but it did.

Tell me about a typical day for you when school is in session. How often does the topic of God or religion come up?

Religion classes usually begin with a prayer and a hymn, and about half of my other classes begin with prayers. A class period rarely goes by without some sort of reference to the LDS Church. At BYU, a shared worldview (based, obviously, on LDS beliefs) is assumed, and nothing is unaffected.

I took an American history class my first semester at BYU, and I remember seriously questioning whether I'd be able to make it through college there. My professor was quoting people I'd never heard of (LDS apostles) discussing people groups I'd never heard of traveling among places I'd never heard of. It took me a week to figure out that she was talking about Jews who had (according to the Book of Mormon) populated the Americas. I felt as if I had stepped into another country upon entering that classroom. I was taking the class with people who spoke the native language and belonged to the native culture, and I was entirely out of my league. I think what saved me was that it was all so interesting; here were these kids who were close to my age, most of whom had attended public schools, many outside of Utah...they looked like me, grew up watching the same TV shows I had, and were American to the bone. But there was nothing mainstream about what I was hearing, and that was intriguing enough to carry me through a semester of being the class ignoramus.

In everyday conversation with other students, matters of religion and church are omni-present. Life at BYU revolves around the LDS Church, and naturally discussions reflect that. The social lives of many of my LDS friends consist almost solely of church-sanctioned activities. I doubt more than a couple of days went by this year during which I didn't utter the words, "I'm not LDS" to some unsuspecting fellow student who had launched into a soliloquy about the [LDS] gospel or archaeological discoveries which support the claims of the Book of Mormon (a surprisingly common discussion topic). My disclosure usually sparked interest, and a series of questions would follow (Why BYU? What religion are you? Are you considering converting? What's the main difference between Mormonism and what you believe?).

How have they reacted to the fact that you haven't converted?

Hmm. Well, I have had people lose interest in friendships with me, but it may be awfully conceited to assume that that's due to my failure to convert to Mormonism and not some character flaw of mine. Most people are gracious and kind, but there are definitely times when I sense discomfort. And it's understandable. I've read the Book of Mormon, taken 6 religion classes, met with missionaries, and lived among generally missionary-minded Latter-day Saints for the past three years, and yet, a traditional Christian I remain. I think at times it feels to some people as though I'm rejecting the thing that's most important to them, and so I'm rejecting them, in a way. Then again, maybe that's not true at all. Who knows; this is the type of stuff people don't talk about.

What has surprised you the most about the Latter-day Saints you've gotten to know so far?

How bold and confident they are in sharing their faith. When people think "Mormon," we quickly think "missionaries," but I really wasn't expecting everyone to be so missionary-minded and comfortable 'bearing their testimonies' to virtual strangers. That still consistently surprises me, and I've lived here for two years now. The LDS Church is adept at preparing its people to publicly discuss issues of eternal significance at a young age.

What do you think is the biggest misconception other Christians have about them?

I think probably our biggest mistake has been to confuse contemporary Mormonism with the Mormonism of the early 20th century. They're vastly different. I heard a BYU professor say this year that trying to nail down Mormon theology is like trying to nail jell-o to the wall; it's just not a simple thing to do. This is not what our theologically systematic ears want to hear, and Christians seem to have the tendency, when interacting with LDS, to define their beliefs for them and accuse (or suspect) them of lying when they deny believing in the picture of Mormonism we paint for them.

What is their biggest misconception about us?

I don't think Latter-day Saints realize how united the Christian church is as a whole; as Christians, the phrase "the Church" conjures up for (most of) us an assemblage of people linked spiritually, by virtue of our belonging to Christ. The Church supersedes denominational lines, cultures, vastly differing peripheral beliefs, methods of worship and evangelism, etc. It's easy for an outsider looking at the Christian world to see confusion and dissension rather than diversity, and that's precisely what the LDS see (and I should probably note that we too often give them reason for thinking so). The average Latter-Day Saint, though very unfamiliar with where the differences lie between a Baptist and a Lutheran, is quite aware that there are differences there.

LDS churches across the world will usually teach the same lessons within a week of each other; a Latter-Day Saint in Miami will most likely hear a lesson on the same topic on the same day as a Latter-Day Saint in Tokyo. This uniformity is so important to them that they refuse to establish churches in areas where interest is high until there is someone available to go and organize it properly (which can take years, which is what happened in Nigeria). Given the high degree of organization and uniformity of the LDS Church, it's not hard to understand why they look at Christianity and think, "fragmented and lost" and look at the LDS Church and think, "one true church."

How about your plans for the future? Do you think they will include further interactions with people who are LDS?

At this point, I can't imagine my future not involving Latter-Day Saints in some way, but I have no idea what that looks like. My concrete plan right now is to finish up at BYU and then attend law school.

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posted by Lydia at 12:12 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 3/28/2008 04:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

    Wow, I thought I am out of my element in a conservative Baptist seminary. Kudo's to Sarah for remaining true to herself and at the same time being respectful of the "Latter-Day Saints"

    Thanks for sharing the interview and story.

  • At 3/28/2008 04:37:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Kwon

    awesome interview.

  • At 3/28/2008 10:48:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    Thank you, Lydia. A great interview!

    My family moved to a suburb of Salt Lake City for my last couple years of High School. It was an odd environment for me, but I got hooked up in a local youth group and didn't really engage outside of that. I wish, looking back, that I would have reached out of my comfort zone more.

    I second the kudos to Sarah!

  • At 3/31/2008 07:35:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

    Great interview Lydia. And thanks for sharing with us Sarah! Sounds like you've found quite a calling.

  • At 4/06/2008 01:54:00 AM, Blogger Unwinona

    I was raised LDS in Salt Lake City...I have to give you major kudos for firmly holding your own beliefs, but respecting those of others. :) I've felt trapped for years between people who want to bring me back into the fold, and those who want me to hate the church and talk badly about it. I'm neither! I'm just not LDS!

    And I must say, isn't that Provo mountain air just delicious? It's a beautiful thing.


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