Jana Riess was baptized in her final year of study at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her career plan to be a Protestant pastor derailed by her conversion, she now is an editor for a religious publishing house, teaches college, and writes about religion. Her most recent book, Flunking Sainthood, is a memoir about a year’s journey through spiritual practices.
Tell me about your religious background.
I was raised in western Illinois, not far from Nauvoo. My mother was agnostic. My father was an atheist, so I grew up with no religious background. I was not taught to believe, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in and communicate with God.
My first exposure to Mormonism and Mormon history was when I was eleven. I took a summer class called “Nauvoo and the Mormons.” I took it because it had a field trip and I really liked going anywhere. At the end of this two week course, we all went to Nauvoo for a day. My chief memory of Nauvoo, other than vomiting on the merry-go-round at the park, was a room called the Women’s Room. It had handicrafts and quilts and there was an enormous photograph of Marie Osmond and her mother on the wall.
I went back to Nauvoo a few years later, and Marie was gone. The whole thing had been removed from the Women’s Room, apparently because Marie had gotten divorced and was no longer a moral exemplar. Both of those things made an impression on me: the fact that it was there in the first place and the fact that it disappeared when her life ceased to be the cultural ideal.
I was a junior at Wellesley, a religion major, when I began reading more seriously about Mormonism. The next year I chose to do my senior honors thesis on Mormonism and American politics. I also had a couple of Mormon friends, and one of them in particular made a huge impression on me. It was through her example that I began to see that there were many different kinds of Latter-day Saints who were faithful and orthodox, yet very engaged with the world.
This is where the story gets hard to relate. It’s always difficult, I think, to relay ineffable experiences to other people. After college, I went to spend the summer of 1991 in Vermont with some friends, and while I was there I spent a day at the Joseph Smith Memorial in Sharon. A missionary there challenged me to read the Book of Mormon. I accepted the challenge and started reading the Book of Mormon. For the rest of the summer I met regularly with two sister missionaries about my age. It was through reading the Book of Mormon that I began to think about Mormonism seriously as a choice for me, not simply as something to study or to observe as a curiosity but as something that might have a claim on my life.
The problem was that I was heading off to Princeton Theological Seminary. I had already set upon the career path of being a Protestant minister, and I was also engaged to marry a Protestant man. Choosing to change religions in such a drastic manner had far-reaching implications that I was not ready to embrace at that time.
I put Mormonism on the back-burner, but I found I kept returning to it. I’d find excuses to write papers about it. I spent a lot of free time reading about it. I read a lot of Dialogue [a Mormon academic journal], which they had in the stacks at the university library. It was hard for me to admit this was not just an academic interest but also an intensely personal one.
It took me until the winter of 1993 to decide that this was something I wanted to do more personally. I wrote a letter to a different friend of mine who had been at Wellesley with me. She had left on a mission after college. I had not kept in touch, but I had a vague idea she might be returning from her mission around that period. So I wrote and explained that I was interested in Mormonism but that I didn’t want to sit down with a stranger, which is basically what a missionary is. I wanted to sit with a friend who would understand that this might lead absolutely nowhere but that I wanted to talk about it openly.
She got my letter the day after she returned from her mission. The timing was quite extraordinary. At the end of her mission she felt she had not completed what she wanted to do and so she had prayed to God that there would be opportunities for her to do missionary work wherever she was going next. For her this letter seemed a remarkable answer to prayer. Her parents lived in New Jersey about an hour from where I was living. We started meeting regularly. I started reading the Book of Mormon and trying to imagine my life as a Latter-day Saint, which was a huge shift in thinking.
You were still in seminary?
Yes! Awkward, huh? I was quite secretive about it. I hadn’t at this point made a decision, but about March I started living the Word of Wisdom. I thought that if I wanted to be baptized I needed to know I could live these standards before I made the commitment of baptism. I kept the Word of Wisdom for about six months before I got baptized. It said it was “for the weakest of all saints,” so I figured that was me! I was definitely inspired by Alma 32. That was one of the passages of the Book of Mormon that spoke to me most directly. I loved the idea of seeing how this new faith tasted. What would it be like? How would it change my life to live this way and to choose to believe?
The lifestyle of Mormonism appeals to a lot of new converts, but it didn’t speak to me in the same way. And there were elements of the culture that I found truly upsetting: the racist history was very troubling for me; the fact that I was training to be a pastor and I was contemplating joining a church in which as a woman I would have no ecclesiastical authority whatsoever was hugely depressing at that time. So I had a lot of cultural issues that I needed to work out.
It took quite a while and I wasn’t baptized until September of 1993. I was at the very beginning of my senior year of seminary and choosing a thesis topic. You might remember that September of 1993 was not a happy time to be a liberal feminist in the Church. I read in the New York Times about the excommunications that were going on and decided to do my thesis about these excommunications. My adviser didn’t actually realize until later that I had just been baptized as a Mormon.
It was so raw. I just didn’t feel ready to share the fact of my conversion with very many people at all. I wasn’t sure how it would sound and I certainly wasn’t prepared to defend Mormonism if the environment proved to be hostile. It was difficult because I’m a fundamentally transparent person. I’m not a secret keeper. I can’t even keep my Christmas presents secret from my family, but here I was keeping this very big secret for several months about what had changed in my life. I was trying to navigate this brand-new religion that I didn’t yet understand culturally and I was trying to find a whole new career path. That was both exciting and scary.
My husband, of course, knew what was happening. He tried very hard to be supportive. He was concerned because this was a major change, and he didn’t quite understand what it was about, but it wasn’t very long before he came on board completely and was supporting me in whatever I wanted to do. However, there were other people in my family and in my circle of friends–when I eventually told people–who were very upset.
You settled on a career in publishing and now edit and write books about religion. You’ve just had a book come out this fall called Flunking Sainthood. It chronicles your attempt to follow a different religious practice every month. Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for the book?
The original idea wasn’t mine. It came from the publisher. They wanted a way to showcase some of the spiritual classics from the past on their list that they felt were relevant to today yet largely undiscovered. So their idea was to have someone write a humorous memoir of reading twelve spiritual classics. They chose me because they knew me and thought I was funny, and because I’m not Catholic and would approach the texts with fresh eyes, as someone who doesn’t necessarily venerate the saints.
But I immediately said, “Well, I don’t think it’s very interesting to just read about someone else reading. I need to be doing something to correspond with each of these readings.” So I devised a schedule of spiritual practices that would go with each month of 2009. For example, when I was reading about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I would do some kind of rigorous ascetic practice. It wasn’t long before the practices became the focus of the book and the readings became supplemental. And then it wasn’t long before I just started failing. The book was not originally going to be about failure in any way. They wanted me to be an example! I felt like a fraud because I kept failing.
In November 2009, near the end of my project, my editor asked how it was going. I said, “Very badly.” I was truly embarrassed to tell her because I felt I had not only failed at the practices but also failed at the tasks the publisher had set out for me to do.
She said, very wisely, “Make the book about that, about the reality of spiritual failure and how we try and fall short.”
I wish I could say that I immediately embraced the idea and felt comfortable putting all my failure out there. But it was very hard to admit how shallow I can be and how distractible I am.
Now that the book is out and I’m hearing from readers, I’m realizing how universal this is. It’s not only Mormons who struggle with failure. It’s certainly not only me. I just got a tweet from a rabbi; I have heard from my many different kinds of Catholic and Protestant readers. I hadn’t quite understood how universal this feeling is that we fall short.
Has the year changed the way you worship?
I came to a couple of realizations in the course of writing the book. One of them is that spiritual practices generally should be undertaken with other people. My idea of sitting down and trying these things individually was ill-advised, to put it gently. “Delusional” is the way I put it in the book.
Most spiritual practices originated in community. If you look at the history of fixed hour prayer or the Jesus Prayer, all of these originated in monastic communities. They can be adapted for individual use, but it’s not how they were originally intended. So if I had it all to do over again, I would certainly try spiritual practices with other people.
The other thing I learned is that there are different spiritual practices for a reason. It is just not reasonable to expect that the same individual is going to resonate with contemplative prayer and active justice-making and lectio divina and fasting. That’s absurd. And yet many of us expect that we’re going to succeed equally at all of these practices. It’s just not how God designed us.
There are so many different ways to worship God. I learned the hard way that I’m not so contemplative a person as I imagined I would be. For me sitting down with my own thoughts for twenty or thirty minutes was not a worshipful experience, whereas I certainly felt I was worshiping God when I practiced hospitality or generosity. Other people, however, thrive on contemplative practice and can’t survive without it.
Another of your ongoing projects is to tweet the Bible. Can you tell me about that?
I’ve been doing it for just over two years now. It’s a three and a half year project so I’m pretty well into it and God has not struck me down with lightning yet. (That’s not to say it may not happen next year.) The project is to tweet out a chapter of the Bible with humorous commentary every day and to do the entire Bible, skipping nothing. One of the driving reasons behind this was that I feel very fussy about the canon as a whole and why we choose to privilege some parts of the Bible and completely ignore others. I do this. We all do this. Liberals do it by putting the words of Jesus in red letters as if that’s the most important thing ever and conservatives do it by taking the Bible’s two verses about homosexuality and saying that that’s the most important thing in the Bible. All of us tend to ignore the Bible’s very difficult standards of caring for the poor.
But the project is supposed to be funny. That’s its primary purpose. And trying to make it sound all hoity-toity and important is anticipating expectations that are not fair to excite. I’m on Twitter as @janariess if anyone would like to follow the project.
A lot of your writing is humorous. Did you always see yourself as a humor writer?
I do think that humor is an enormously helpful coping mechanism in religion and in relationships, but I never used to think of myself as very funny. A few years ago I wrote a satirical blog post and I started hearing from people, “Oh, you’re really funny!” That surprised me because in my family of origin I’m the least funny person. And my husband is one of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met. I never thought of myself as being particularly funny until well into my thirties.
Humor has a wonderful way of breaking down barriers between people and among groups. As I skirt around the periphery of many different religions, I would say that humor is a good part of that. I’m happy to be friends with anyone who can laugh at themselves.
Beginning seminary, you planned to devote much of your life to church work, but now your church work comes by assignment rather than as a job you choose. How has that shift felt for you?
Since I joined the Church, I’ve served in leadership in every auxiliary. I’m currently Primary secretary. I love the calling system. I think it’s one of the genius elements of Mormonism. I love the concept that everyone has to do something, that people have to get their hands dirty. That’s not religious; it’s just basic organizational behavior: everyone involved in the organization is invested in the success of that organization. But the religious genius is that we are living out the theological ideal: we have of a priesthood of all believers.
I was thinking about this at our ward Christmas party. After dinner, it was very chaotic, kids running around, and my husband was so tired and just wanted peace and quiet, so he took our daughter and left. Totally understandable. But at the end of the night all the rest of us were staying to sweep the floor, put away the tables, portion out the leftovers. The whole evening was planned and executed by volunteer labor. It’s amazing.
The other side of it, though, is that we could be using the calling system so much better than we are by paying attention to people’s gifts more intentionally. We think about callings in terms of, what does the ward need right now? Or what does the ward need yesterday? There’s an urgency to filling a space with anyone available, and that’s not necessarily the healthiest approach in terms of recognizing people’s gifts and helping them develop their gifts.
You talked about the realization you came to from working on Flunking Sainthood that religion is most satisfying when practiced with other people. Can you talk a bit about the role of community in Mormonism?
In Mormonism I wish we had more of an emphasis on communal spiritual practices rather than only individual devotion. Going off into a corner to pray or praying as a family is very important, of course. But when we as Mormons go to church we’re not really there to worship. We’re there to learn. We’re expected to learn the basics in terms of information in Gospel Doctrine and then take that into our own homes.
We also don’t pray as a group for each other. If someone’s having a hard time, I’ll say, “May I pray for you?” If she says yes, I pick up her hand and pray for her right there. Many Mormons find that really uncomfortable because it’s just not part of our culture. Why is it not part of our culture? We’re commanded to do that in scripture.
But one of the things that Mormons do well is community. I’ve thought about why our community is, frankly, superior to a lot of religious communities I’ve observed. That sounds chauvinistic but I firmly believe that one of the strokes of genius in the organization of our church is that we have this old-fashioned community model where we attend church based on geography and no other factor. When left to their own devices, people will tend to go to church where they’re comfortable spiritually, politically, and socio-economically. But our wards are a mish-mash of people of every economic class and need, of every political extreme.
You don’t find that model anywhere else in America today. It’s unique. The Catholic model used to be very similar but Catholics have now decided, at least in the United States, that they can go to church wherever they like. We don’t have that luxury in Mormonism.
Where I live in Cincinnati, my ward encompasses half of the urban core and part of suburbia. So there are people who are struggling terribly with poverty and there are people who live in Indian Hill, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the United States, all in the same religious community. You never see that kind of radical economic diversity anywhere else. And it brings a completely different dynamic to that community.
When I was fairly new in the Church, I thought attending near where you lived was just something that people did. I didn’t understand that I wouldn’t be able to have a calling or a temple recommend if I didn’t attend my home ward. So when I moved from Princeton, New Jersey to a small town outside of Lexington, Kentucky, I tried to go to church in Lexington so I could be part of a university community and have more in common with those I worshiped with. But it became very clear that if I wanted to have a calling that I needed to be involved in the ward where I lived. It turned out to be one of the greatest blessings of my life. I was forced to live in that community fully, to be completely invested. I found the people that I had so wrongly judged had so much to teach me.
At A Glance
Location: Cincinnati, OH
Marital status: Married
Children: One daughter
Occupation: Editor and writer
Convert? September 1993
Schools Attended: Wellesley College, Princeton Theological Seminary, Columbia University
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Be Thou My Vision” (not in LDS hymnal)
On The Web: http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/
Interview by Annette Pimentel. Photos used with permission.