305-306: Flunking Sainthood with Jana Riess

December 15, 2011
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Today we spend two good hours with author and scholar Jana Reiss.  Jana is the author/editor of nine books, including: Mormonism for Dummies and What Would Buffy Do?  Jana is a convert to the LDS Church, and also has a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

In this episode Jana discusses: her early years being raised by secular parents, her conversion to God/Christianity, and her ultimate conversion to Mormonism.  We also discuss with Jana her new book, “Flunking Sainthood.”

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40 Responses to 305-306: Flunking Sainthood with Jana Riess

  1. Bill
    December 15, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Great book!  I am looking forward to this interview.  My disaffected wife (I am still active in the church…) also loved the book and can’t understand how Jana could possibly have been attracted to and continue in Mormonism!  Jana is one of those people I greatly admire and her sessions are always the first Sunstone mp3’s I listen to.  Thank you so much for your great example, sense of humor and integrity!

  2. maverick
    December 16, 2011 at 5:16 am

    Why do you think some members of the LDS church who left the church became atheist?

  3. maverick
    December 16, 2011 at 6:25 am

    After  sunset sex is allowed during the month of Ramadan. The event when Muslim break their fast is called Iftar

  4. Drewskione
    December 16, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Been a few minutes, and I’m already excited.  This is GREAT stuff.  Oddly enough Christopher Hitchens died today (I mention b/c he is mentioned a few times)

  5. December 19, 2011 at 4:16 am

    I’ve read a few of her blog posts in the past (and plan on reading the book over the holiday), but this interview was a much better introduction to Janna Riess than anything I’ve read before. What an incredible woman! I feel like you’ve just unveiled another of my Uncorrelated Mormon All Stars for me. After just the first installment of that interview, she moved up among my very favorite “women who stay” with Joanna Brooks, Tresa Edmunds, and Jennifer Finalyson Fife. Can’t wait to finish the podcast tonight.

  6. December 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Just finished the first part, and am loving it. Jana, I love your discussion on truth, and that you’re asking whether it matters if something is factual or not. I’ve wondered that for a long time; I find truth or goodness in things that aren’t aren’t factually true all the time. My problem is that the church is claiming factual truth as well as spiritual truth. The church says that the Book of Mormon happened, that you have to accept everything or nothing. Pres. Hinckley said that either the church is the one true church, or it’s a fraud. So the church is shooting itself in the foot, which you pointed out. But I also believe that if the church is going to make that claim, it should be held to it. If it’s going to insist that it is the one true church and that it is factual and divinely inspired, I believe it should live up to that. So I hold with your idea of truth; I find goodness all over the place, even in Mormonism. But I choose to distance myself from it because it can’t accept that understanding of truth, even though doing so would make it a lot easier for people like me to stay.

    On another note, I read Flunking Sainthood in one sitting. Loved it! It was such a down to earth view of spirituality, and it was wonderful!

  7. December 19, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    I’m in the process of reading Jana’s book.  It’s good.  It’s about the practice of religion.  The practice of becoming holy, becoming (or not becoming) a saint. 

    In the balance of praxis and poiesis, religion has clearly discovered what eluded philosophers for so long until Kierkegaard and Heidegger.  Specifically, that there is an inescapable link between being and knowing; between who we are and how we see the world; a link between our embeddedness in the world, our “being there,” and our understanding of the world.  Religion understood this early and inculcated practice, observance, rituals, ordinances, and obedience to commandments.  “Be ye Holy” was the commandment.  Being holy precedes the new revelation; personal holiness–the naked unsoiled feet–precedes to the burning bush.  God speaks face-to-face with the holy man, Moses, while the dissolute masses pray to the golden calf.  The bible gives us a vision of the mountain top, being with God, and the valley low, being in the world without God, with the image and likeness of God, but not his revelation, not his word, not his spirit.  For this same reason, Kierkegaard said that philosophy, worldly understanding, “cannot nourish us.”  A radical change in being, a transformation, was necessary before the Israelites could enter a holy land.  This is the model of the judo-christian religion.  Being–being holy specifically–precedes knowledge, precedes revelation.

    Accordingly, perhaps we could hear more from Jana about her thoughts on the type of individual religion aims to create and the type of community it desires to create.  Accordingly, beings of that type–religious beings–see the world in a certain way.  What is that?  How does religious observance determine our vision and understanding of the world.  How does being holy, or striving for holiness in this case, determine our understanding of who we are and what the world is?  What did she learn from her quest for religious observance?  Further, religious observance leads to a way of being, a kind of person, and collectively, to a kind of people. How does a religious people see the world?  Is it possible to follow these observances on her own, as a side project, in the absence of a religious community?

    What is it specifically about the observance of Mormonism that determines our vision of the world?  What is it specifically about our collective observance, our collective worship, that determines how we see the world as a people?  What is the Mormon “being” deconstructed and accordingly, what is the Mormon “vision” deconstructed?

    Also, as we understand Mormonism properly, we may leave much of it behind. We may also keep much of it. What can we keep and what must we leave behind in our unique “being” and “knowing” as Mormons? How does that affect us?

    • Eddie Mazariegos
      December 19, 2011 at 10:18 pm

      I find this helpful for having some new questions to ask.  Since I’ve left the church I’ve been wondering what I should believe and who I should be.  Who do I want to be now?  I have no idea.  I feel lost because I just don’t feel like myself anymore.  I go to church and I say to myself “Who are these people? Was I one of them?”  It seems so judgmental and small now.

      I thought about going back to church a few times just so I could feel like my old self again, but truthfully, I’m not my old self anymore.  I can’t go back because I don’t even relate.

      I’ve been coming to Mormon stories where I find a lot of useful information about the struggle I experience on a daily basis but no clearly defined answers for how to move forward.  Maybe that’s the point.  I’ve tried to figure out who I want to be and what I want to believe in but it’s hard because I’ve lost trust and optimism and things seem a bit hopeless.

      • December 21, 2011 at 12:36 am

        Eddie,
        I don’t have the answers.  I can tell you what I did. 

        I started at the most basic, the most atomistic level I could break things down to.  For me, that was my family, my wife and kids.  I knew that I needed them and that I couldn’t break that apart, that I could never let those bonds dissolve.  From there, I started building outward based on what those people (my wife and children) needed from me and the kind of person I needed to become in order to strengthen my relationships with them and make them more joyful and meaningful. 

        Then we started working outward from there.  What can we do as a family for our extended families, our community, our coworkers, for the greater whole, and most importantly, what can we do to give back to God, or the cosmic reality that unites us all, whatever you want to call it.  For us, we like to call it God because it works for us and it draws us out of our selfishness. 

        Starting at the most atomized level that is comfortable for you and then working outward.  This is the only pragmatic, grounded, yet deeply spiritual vision and belief system we could create.

        Start with the immediate the personal and work outward.  Religion sometimes starts with the abstract and impersonal–with dogma–but that practice doesn’t work.

  8. Anonymous
    December 19, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Very interesting conversation. Thanks Janna and John.

    With regard to the future of religion – which John brought up at the end of this first half – listeners may be interested a recent podcast interview with Robert N. McCauley, Director of Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture at Emory University and author of a new book, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.

    McCauley argues that religion isn’t going anywhere because its conceptions fit our evolved cognitive capacities (mostly unconscious) much better than science.  Jana Reiss’s responses (dare I say, style of cognition?) seemed illustrative of several points that McCauley makes.

    The podcast can be accessed at:

    http://www.pointofinquiry.org/robert_mccauley_why_religion_is_natural_and_science_is_not/  

    Book description from the Oxford University Press website:

    Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not – Robert N. McCauley

    In Why Religion is Natural and Science Is Not, Robert N. McCauley, one of the founding fathers of the cognitive science of religion, argues that our minds are better suited to religious belief than to scientific inquiry.

    Drawing on the latest research and illustrating his argument with commonsense examples, McCauley argues that religion has existed for many thousands of years in every society because the kinds of explanations it provides are precisely the kinds that come naturally to human minds.

    Science, on the other hand, is a much more recent and rare development because it reaches radical conclusions and requires a kind of abstract thinking that only arises consistently under very specific social conditions. Religion makes intuitive sense to us, while science requires a lot of work. McCauley then draws out the larger implications of these findings. The naturalness of religion, he suggests, means that science poses no real threat to it, while the unnaturalness of science puts it in a surprisingly precarious position.

    Note: There are more accessible books covering the cognitive science of religion.  Justin Barrett’s “Why Would Anyone Believe in God” is a good place to start.  Barrett is a practicing/believing Christian if that makes any difference.

    • Anonymous
      December 22, 2011 at 10:11 am

      Another interesting and accessible treatment is the following 1 hour lecture by Andy Thomson (http://www.jandersonthomson.com/about/).  

      One may have to guard against a negative emotional response to the fact that it was delivered an American Atheist conference preventing an open and objective assessment of this scientific argument.
      It can be found on YouTube:

  9. December 20, 2011 at 11:36 am

    This was a very interesting interview.  I am personally skeptical that we are entering a new golden age, in which secularism will redeem us from religion.  For me, the bad things in religion are fundamentally bad things in human nature, and (like John) I see a lot of good things coming from religion (along with all the crap, which for some reason has a historical tendency to drift toward the top of religious hierarchies). 

    Leaving organized religion is not entirely beneficial.  We lose a lot of good things along with the bad, and some of the bad persists (like our tendency to make snap judgments based on emotion and then use reason to create a backstory defending them from critical scrutiny).  Skeptics don’t unite to form communities, as a rule; maybe someone will change that (as several people are currently trying to), but for now the historical record accurately characterizes religious folk as communitarians (for good and ill) and their irreligious counterparts as individualists (for good and ill).  The good news is that there is no good reason rational people cannot be communitarian (or religious).  Jana is an example of this.  The bad news is that the old-time religions have an immune system that is allergic to them (perhaps because they disrupt the stability of the community: I would contend that some such disruption is healthy, but there does need to be some order for the community to persist).

    Maybe we should look at introducing the character of the village idiot or court jester into our religions.  Back in the day, the idiot could say whatever he wanted (something very important to rational people and social critics): people didn’t have to agree with him, or respond favorably to what he said, but they were not supposed to react with violence.  They could laugh at him, rebut him with an argument, or ignore him.  Churches these days seem to do a lot of ignoring (which is fine), but then they follow this up with measures designed to shut the idiot up (threatening to take away his standing in the community, denying his integrity, cutting him off from his friends and family, etc.).  The latter response creates a sizable crowd of disaffected idiots with increasingly cogent arguments to offer against the sanity of their community (which has denied their right to exist, defining them as a kind of social cancer).  Once a certain critical mass is reached, something has to give: either the church finds an acceptable place in its community for the idiot, or it starts a war with him.  In the past, such wars have always ended badly (for everyone: the community is permanently injured, much the way a body is in the wake of chemotherapy or an auto-immune disease).

    I wish people felt less threatened by one another.  I wish church was a place where everyone could go to find meaning (not just the idiot or his opponents).  I wish we could see what really ties us together as viable communities and honor that over our piddling definitions of it (and the fights that come about when we quibble over these definitions).  I wish we were comfortable embracing the mysteries of love, communion, and service without trying to define them so narrowly (and fighting to keep some people cut off from them).  But I am just another idiot, doing what the idiot does (i.e. wishing that people were more rational than they are).

  10. Anonymous
    December 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    I personally no longer feel the motivation to privilege ancient “sacred texts” – which seems to be the impetus for the Midrash that Janna mentioned.   I’ve become particularly impatient with study that requires so much “panning for gold nuggets” when explicit formulations of these same ideas, or better ones, are available elsewhere.

    But still I am curious why others do – which means I am also curious why I did.

    The answer is simple on one level.  I believed the claim that the text was a direct revelation from God.  That made it sacred by definition and placed the burden on me to discover how it lived up to that.

    But I think it must go deeper than that to explain why I so blithely discounted the ponderous and nasty bits as while engaging in creative expansions of the rest.  (I have to admit I did not do that very well – so form here on I am speculating about people far more intellectually talented than I am.

    Perhaps it has something to do with keeping things real.

    Consider a person who is sensitive to the faults (literary and/or theological) of their scripture and yet deeply experiences hints of an ultimate cosmic truth that lies beyond those imperfect words. This truth inaccessible by empirical means – perhaps by necessity –  but still attainable, at least in part, by creative personal spiritual exertion.

    Perhaps on some level, that person senses the danger of going untethered to empirical reality.  Such a project can go dangerously adrift – veering off into solipsism.

    So he works from the base station of a shared tradition.  Ancient scripture provides an anchor to an inter-subjectively shared model of reality.  The key is that it is shared with other people.  Reality is realized in relationship with other human beings (Descartes opinion notwithstanding).

    It appears to me that Janna is trying to apply a liberal Christian mode of theologizing to Mormonism that doesn’t fit very well.  She had (and may still have) plenty of inter-subjective validation for this mode of theologizing – but, as she said, that tradition is missing some crucial content (e.g. agency).  Mormonism has the crucial content, but not a shared tradition of creative theological expansion – too much of that pesky literalism.  

    I can sympathize with Janna’s lonely “supplemental” work.  The church would be better off with some of that leavening.  And whether there is something to what I just wrote or not, I wish Janna the best in her “struggle” which, as she said, “is part of the point of it all.”  The struggle from the secular perspective is tough at times as well, but in a good way, so far.

    Cheers

    JT

  11. maverick
    December 20, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Hermes 

    I have taken a part of your post to post it again to emphasize its relevance.
    Churches these days seem to do a lot of ignoring (which is fine), but then they follow this up with measures designed to shut the idiot up (threatening to take away his standing in the community, denying his integrity, cutting him off from his friends and family, etc.).  The latter response creates a sizable crowd of disaffected idiots with increasingly cogent arguments to offer against the sanity of their community (which has denied their right to exist, defining them as a kind of social cancer).  Once a certain critical mass is reached, something has to give: either the church finds an acceptable place in its community for the idiot, or it starts a war with him.  In the past, such wars have always ended badly (for everyone: the community is permanently injured, much the way a body is in the wake of chemotherapy or an auto-immune disease).

    • December 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm

      Thanks for the love, Maverick.

  12. Jana R.
    December 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Hi everyone, and I’m sorry I am so late coming into this conversation. I appreciate your taking the time to listen to the interview (at more than two hours, that’s a time commitment almost as demanding as a three-hour Sunday block). I’m impressed by the people I’ve heard from here and those who have found me on Facebook. Glad to meet you as fellow pilgrims on the journey. And I love the idea of the Court Jester who can speak certain truths only because she is an outlier without institutional power. Can someone please extend that calling to me?

    • Wanderer
      December 21, 2011 at 1:01 am

      Jana,

      I think I speak for many who don’t often comment but nevertheless love and NEED commentary from the likes of you when I say THANK YOU and that the 2 hours was time very well spent!  I found myself making lots of notes, especially in the second half of the first hour, as you were articulating points that I wish I could better.  I live in Cincinnati a few years back.  I wonder if you’re influence, or that of others with a more progressive view is being felt in my old ward? (Norwood) Man it needs it!

    • December 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm

      Thanks, Jana.  I would call you.  As is, I am happy to let you be a spokesperson for those of us Saints who remain moral, spiritual, and faithful without feeling nourished at church.

  13. Alan
    December 21, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I subscribe to Mormon Stories but don’t listen to all of the episodes.  This one I really enjoyed and was helpful to me.  Thank you.

  14. Anonymous
    December 21, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    I think Jana is stressing the point I’ve been stressing for a long time: It’s not about claims of absolute  truth, but about practise, practise, practise. Your only religion is the one you live.

  15. Anonymous
    December 21, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    I subscribe to the podcast, and in my player, the link for Pt2 was for the same file as Pt1.

  16. Katie L.
    December 28, 2011 at 12:39 am

    LOVED THIS.  Thank you so much, John and Jana.  And I loved the book, too: one of my favorites of the year.

  17. Anonymous
    December 28, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I needed to hear this podcast TODAY.  Jana, I can’t even put into words the relief and joy I feel having heard your podcast today.  I ordered your book after the first 10 minutes of the podcast.  You’ve helped me believe I can think my own thoughts and still love and experience the LDS religion.  Thank you for helping me accept my own spiritual progression.

    • John
      December 28, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      My wife and I felt the same and did the same thing, but, so far, the book is pretty dissimilar to the interview in both topic and tone. Enjoy both, but don’t expect the author to explore the issues in the book through an overtly LDS framework or you may be disappointed. Also, the book has a more flippant tone toward religion than the interview. I’d be more interested in a book where Janna Riess took us on her journey through Mormonism.

      • December 28, 2011 at 5:15 pm

        That’s not to say that Flunking Sainthood isn’t great. It is. Just different.

      • Anonymous
        December 28, 2011 at 10:11 pm

        Thanks for the heads up.  I agree that I was hoping for an LDS framework.  Her confidence as well as her insights into traditional Mormonism are refreshing.

  18. Jacob Brown
    December 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I really enjoyed listening to this one. Jana is a thoughtful and intelligent person who seems to have found a way to survive and thrive in Mormonism. I was a little surprised by her comments about people who take the teachings of the church as literal. She said something like “people who leave the church because of literal truth or historicity issues are falling in the same trap as those who cling to the literalness of the institutional church’s message.” (Please correct me, Jana, if I’m misunderstanding you.)

    She seemed to be carving out a middle ground or middle way that is in her view higher. It’s Fowler’s stages of faith development where stage 4 is superior to stage 3. I’m not sure Fowler argues that one is superior, but I feel like Jana is. Maybe she could clarify.

    Now it is probably clear that I left the church for “literalness” reasons (because I’m writing this comment). In my efforts to understand the people who live into the symbolism and mysticism of religion I have come to believe that people probably just have different needs from their world view or belief system.  Some people need the experience of faith and some people need the propositional truths of their faith. Most people are probably between these two.

    My assertion is no different than the logos versus pathos approaches in rhetoric. I think some people need an aesthetic/revealed/transcendent theology and some people need a natural evidence-based theology. I don’t think one of these approaches is inherently superior to the other. I just happen to believe that one of these is inherently superior at meeting my personal needs. I think both of them are undeniable flawed and incomplete.

  19. JB
    January 1, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Jana, did you ever read the book: The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel?  Your description of your childhood relation to organized religion reminds me of this great book about faith.  If you read it I wonder if you ever saw yourself in this book. 

  20. Anonymous
    January 5, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    So I hate to be the Negative Nelly, but I found this discussion rather insulting.  Jana spent a lot of time talking about all the things the church and the faithful do wrong in their devotions and practice and then went on to be quite self congratulatory about all the extra “supplementing” she has had to do to remain happy in the church.  How very condescending to those who practice and find value in traditional Mormonism.

    Jana also went on to rail against people who put too much energy into the factual validity of Mormonism.  I, for one, do not reject Mormonism because I’m worried about how my beliefs look to other people.  I don’t know a nonbeliever who does.  The nonbelievers I know and engage with reject Mormonism on the basis of factual validity because truth actually means something to them.  I am one such person.  I reject Mormonism on the basis of its factual validity because there are a limited number of years of consciousness I get to borrow on this planet and I don’t want to spend any of it believing or rejoicing in delusion or fallacy.  I would rather marvel in the scientific understanding of the brain and what about its function leads to spiritual experiences than bend truth to continue believing in something that didn’t actually happen or doesn’t actually exist.  I’d rather marvel in the scientific understandings of our universe than bend truth so I can continue to believe myths about the creation and activities of its early inhabitants are facts.  If that makes me overly obsessed with truth, then bully for me.

    I don’t mind if people find value in religion or spirituality.  There are plenty of meaningful lessons about life and humanity to be learned in religion and the grand myths that have followed humans through their many years of development and change.  What I do take exception with is the curt dismissal of those who want to crawl outside of the Plato’s cave and venture into new horizons.

  21. Mike Michaels
    January 6, 2012 at 7:22 am

    First off I have to say that I absolutely loved Jana and the podcast!

    As a former Protestant myself prior to converting to Mormonism, her take on Mormonism and suggestions for improvement rang a familiar bell to me. Unfortunately Mormonism isn’t a metaphorical belief narrative faith. I observed several times where she clearly projected a form of Protestantism onto it – just like I did before my conversion 28 years ago.

    Like me one day before my crisis struck, she is perfectly fine with what she thinks Mormonism is. But she is a sitting duck for a major smackdown when the reality of Mormonism hits: obedience to authority.   Perhaps leadership will cut her some slack because she is a woman and an academic.

    All faith is subjective.  There are times and circumstances where subjective truth has more utility and validity than objective truth.  I don’t pretend to understand all the situations where that might be the case but I’m willing to grant it liberally where people realize benefits from their subjective truth.  Obviously though there is a major disconnect between the subjective truth of Mormonism Jana espouses and the objective truth claims the Church makes.  As long as her local leaders don’t do anything to enforce their view on Jana – bully for her!

  22. Slackmichelle
    January 7, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Janna, I would love to have you in my ward! What a great mentor to women in the church. 

  23. January 20, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Jana, I’m slow to praise most anyone, but your story stands as a great example for all of us (Mormon or not). It will certainly help many. Thanks for your willingness to share. BTW, how do people reach you outside of FB? And where do I find out about this NYC church event you’re involved in? (That’s my town!)

    • Anonymous
      January 22, 2012 at 1:30 am

      From Jana:

      john, thanks for forwarding this. Christian, I appreciate that kind feedback! Facebook is actually the best way to get in touch with me, as I am about to change email addresses. (My New Year’s Resolution was to get a gmail account. I thought if I set the bar really, really low for this year’s achievements I would surely succeed at*something*.)

      And the conference is at Columbia University on February 3 and 4. It is open to the public and we would be delighted to have you there. Here is the link for the conference:

      http://ircpl.org/2011/event/mormonism-conference/

      And I’ll be posting a schedule of speakers on my blog this week. Please come and introduce yourself when you are there.

  24. David
    March 20, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    This was one of the best interviews I have listened to.  I am definitely going to buy her book.  I hope it is selling well and Anti-Mormon prejudice isn’t keeping people from finding out about and reading this book.  I’m not sure yet if I will be able to stay in the church like her long term but it is nice to know some people succeed at it and do so quite happily.

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