Book Review: The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

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This is not about Science Fiction, it is not about politics, which is my usual distraction away from medicine. It is a mystery novel, in the context of a Mormon community, and caught my attention because of the potential connection to religion.

Mette Ivie Harrison is a successful author, mother, triathlete, and Mormon who has explored the religion into which she was born. The book’s main attraction to me, then, is actually the author’s account of Mormon life.

The book itself is well constructed, although in fairness, I listened to it as an audiobook rather than reading it as an ebook, my usual venue for absorption for books I write about. Audiobooks do not demand the same degree of concentration, so perhaps evaluating them is unfair. But as a busy physician, audiobooks accompany me on car trips, and put me to sleep at night if I turn down the volume. That is no reflection on the author; it is how I get in a lot of my literature. Until I retire, anyway.

In this story, the viewpoint is of a middle-aged wife of a Mormon Bishop in Draper, a primarily Mormon community of Utah. A young woman disappears, and as the story unfolds, our protagonist investigates while undertaking her duties, and then some, as the Bishop’s wife.

The story captivates, and the author does a good job at developing the characters. The Bishop’s Wife is haunted by the death of her young child, and fantasizes about a replacement in the form of Kelly, a five year old girl of the mother who has gone missing.

The plot and story are all well and good, but what I found most absorbing was the description from a self-reliant, strong-willed female, of the male dominated community in which she lives. It got me thinking, yet again, on the amazing faces of religion.

I have read a good deal about religion: Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism and Atheism. The Oxford Companion to the Bible sits by my bed. But it’s not what you think.

I joke with people sometimes that I follow the teachings of Sun Tsu. Know your enemy! What prompts me so much to explore religion like this, when I really should be reading more medicine, is just how people do it. How does religion capture people?

After all, they cannot be all that different from me. I can identify with people who want wealth, and happiness, and comfort. I very much identify with people who embrace fairness, and freedom, and kindness. One of my favorite phrases in this blog has to do with enriching your life by opening your heart to others, and in a way, I have even ‘preached’ this message.

How is it that I simply cannot understand how people can start out from the assumptions so many religions demand?

I have studied science and mathematics all my life. You start with as few axioms as possible, and build from there. It seems to me that the theist starts right in the middle.

So it appears to be with the Mormons. There exists a complex body of belief which has little or no explanation beyond the presumed divine writings of one blemished man. Admittedly, it follows on the back of two thousand years of Christianity, and a couple of thousand more of Judaism, not to mention umpteen prior belief sets with significant similarities, going back into ancient religions and myths.

But one man, Joseph Smith, seems to be responsible for the Book of Mormon, with it’s unusual concepts such as well-defined levels of afterlife, including the idea of ‘sealing’ with one or more people in the afterlife through certain actions and ceremonies in the current life.

Harrison’s book describes the views and actions of various fictional  women in the Mormon community whose behavior reflects a direct consequence in belief in such complicated arbitrary constructs. The casual nature of the description and discussion convinces the reader of the veracity of these depictions.

Women in these communities really are subservient, really do view themselves in some way as less able than the men, as something which to those of us outside the community appears as ‘second class.’ The religious dogma looks to them as ‘holy spirit’ and ‘God’s word,’ and to us looks like rationalization and justification for subtle, and not so subtle abuse.

It’s the natural acceptance that gets to me. The lack of questioning. The utter belief, and almost surprise that perhaps others might not believe.

On the surface, the Mormon community seems idyllic, and one might argue the ends justify the means. People help people, and are involved in other people’s lives. Certainly the Bishop’s Wife is, seemingly walking into a neighbor’s house, a neighbor who doesn’t even like her all that much, and takes on certain domestic chores as a matter of course. Washing, bathing a child she hardly knows, doing the laundry, baking cookies. And yet you really get the impression that these people do care about one another, or at least care about being seen to care for one another, my cynical side might venture.

So what irks me, then. Control.

As with any organized religion it is always thus.

Control.

So much of the belief system has more to do with control, than with the divine. Polygamy, which the Mormons have expiated now, but was it not simply lustful appetite and desire to control that led Smith and Young to this original doctrine.

Woman’s place in the home, and that expectation, is slowly waning too, in the modern world. Recently the Mormons have accepted a level of tolerance to same-sex attraction, while still eschewing same-sex activities. Such opposition is slowly eroding, it appears, along with opposition to non-whites.

After all, God is a white heterosexual male, is he not? You see, I just don’t know how they know.

We humans have a lot of crosses to bear, no pun intended, and so I can see that religion can provide a haven (if not a heaven) to get through life. I understand how religion can stem from our unrealized arrogance, that we think we should be able to understand everything, and so make up deities to fill in that which we cannot understand. It used to be thunder and lightning, but now that we know about that, it’s becoming more existential.

The gradual acceptance generally of Darwinian theory is relieving God of the necessity of providing explanations for species development, and now also such things as disease, and cancer, and even progressive development of ideas. Religion is still needed by those who cannot tolerate a void of knowledge, and who don’t have the strength and endurance to ask the right questions while suspending their thirst for immediate answers.

The author’s columns in the Huffington Post provide further insight. She describes herself as having been an atheist within the Mormon religion, and I wonder how her community felt about that; perhaps her other columns may shed some light on it. I’ll pursue them in time. But she has concluded with a belief in God.

She argues that Mormon is not a cult, a topic used to attack Mitt Romney a few years back, because Republican politicians, more than other politicians I find, are perfectly willing to conjure up any silly argument if it has some traction with the unintelligent base (do they have an intelligent base? Oh, I suppose. Some.)

But my first question is, ‘What’s so bad about being a cult?’ I mean, to me, they’re all cults.

The author, Mette Ivie Harrison, in her vivid portrayal of the inequities within the Mormon community, also describes the warmth of common purpose. Their is far more tolerance here of transgressors than I had expected. It is certainly a niche where people can survive, and maybe thrive.

But the Bishop’s Wife’s ambivalence about so many issues: having a new child in her family, which might turn out to be a daughter, with all the subjugation that gender attracts; seeing descriptions of abuse that form the seamy underbelly of any organized religion, any community with arbitrary rules that discriminate against one group; and the apparent elevation of presumed divine law above secular law–that ambivalence is real, and demands continual reformation. I get the impression that Ms. Harrison takes solace in the continual and hoped-for reformation. Like Mormon is a journey, not a fixed belief structure, and she is going to enjoy it.

I am surprised the author returned to her Mormon roots, after her experience in the church, but it reinforces something about human nature I find so hard to identify with–not to understand, really–I just can’t do it.

I cannot start in the middle of dogmatic beliefs, and then dictate rules for others based on potentially faulty premises. Theists can, and do.

And it seems to me sometimes that theists may not even believe in God, as much as they believe in their need to have faith that there is one–if that makes any sense.

I think many theists are marvelous people. What I cannot tolerate about some theists, and most theist dogma, is their projection of their beliefs onto others, their demand that others believe what they do, and that others comply with their arbitrary rules. I don’t like their brainwashing techniques with the young uninformed minds in their midst, and I don’t much like their disdain of those who don’t believe what they believe. I always feel unworthy in the presence of theists, and I don’t think that is just me. I think they feel I am unworthy too.

I don’t like their hate-mongering, and fear-mongering. All of these things are a means to an end.

The end they seek is to control those around them, and to fill the void of their natural occurring ignorance that as human beings we all of us must suffer.

I have heard of Jewish atheists. Mette Ivie Harrison described herself, before her return to the faith, as a Mormon atheist. When any religion accepts within its ranks the atheists and the gays and the socialists and the feminists–well–more power to them.

If any organized religion were acceptant of these things, I might even join one of them. But God only knows what such a religion would be called.

Mette Ivie Harrison, your book got me thinking about all this. It gave me an understanding of things, I think, I didn’t understand. And it was interesting at the same time.

Good on you.

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