I have a firm testimony that stories are the truest thing there are—that they co-create reality. I mean “fictions” as well as history—as any history scholar will tell you, every history has its own subjectivities, its own fictions. Human beings are agents choosing; characters in stories acting; and therefore it could be said that every human being is a series of sentences unrolling one by one, subject-verb-complement, contributing to the great True Story which is “the sum of existence,” the “fairest gem that the richest of worlds can produce” (Jaques). Nearly every one of the articles on this site contains a story. Mormons are a story-telling people. “Tell me the stories of Jesus,” our children sing,”I love to hear!—[oh, the] things I would ask him to tell me if he were here!” (Parker) I’ve played fast and loose with the line breaks in that song, but I’m a “creative” writer—playing fast and loose with words is what we do.
Ergo, this is my story, or one version of it: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area during the upheaval of the 1960s, the daughter of two conservative Mormons transplanted by my father’s business. I watched them go to the temple regularly and faithfully, and we went to church as a matter of routine, but my father openly disliked my best friends, hippies who questioned everything, including the way I took for granted that God was male and that Jesus was a Jew who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago. I couldn’t defend myself very well, but I loved listening to my friends’ arguments. They were smart. They made me think.
At BYU I came in contact with my first well-read Mormon women—Dorothy Hansen (aunt of Kristine Hansen, whose article is on this site) and Elouise Bell among the most important. They ushered me into a world of academics whose kindness and spirituality felt familiar and trustworthy—and they, too, made me think. Eugene England, that wonderful unorthodox father of the Mormon personal essay, took me under his wing (as he did so many), enabling me to teach lower-division creative writing at BYU. Eventually I took a graduate internship in Salt Lake City, where one day a fine Sunday School teacher in a U of U student ward said matter-of-factly, “Everything Jesus did we can do, except the Atonement.” I was totally hooked. What kind of story does that imply? I want to explore it, to tease and unpack it, to write it! Thank you for giving me something to think about forever!
I seem to have been born knowing that neither God nor Jesus Christ is threatened by questions. One of those excellent Bay Area hippie friends once told me I already had the answers to all my questions– my job was to find them. This consciousness-raising declaration simply paraphrases Jesus’s injunction/invitation: “Seek, and ye shall find! Knock, and it shall be opened unto you!” (Matthew 7:7 and elsewhere.) What permission this gives to explore, to question, to overturn what’s taken for granted! A few years into my marriage, I found I could not happily move forward in my life unless I dove wholeheartedly into the question of Jesus, his identity and his powers. Remembering that teacher in the U of U student ward, I prayed: “Tell me how Jesus did what he did, because I want to do it too.” And answers came pouring into my hands. That’s a story too long for this article, but it was a process of almost two decades involving (among other things) Buddhist meditation, feminist literary theory, alternative healing….
For six years I studied with a remarkable hands-on energy healer back in the Bay Area, a man patient enough to let me write two books about his work, which seemed to me to be a direct answer to my original question. And let me not neglect to say that my family—my husband and four children—were also supremely patient with me throughout this process. We are still married, and all my children have graduated from college and married in the temple. Questioning does not have to lead to divorce or mayhem.
Another crucial scene in the story: for writing and publishing fiction that described interrogation of and deviation from orthodox Mormonism, I was fired from a long-standing “permanent part-time” position teaching creative writing at BYU. Not everyone on this site has had a fully and freely happy relationship with the Church and its employment prospects! But Gene England told me, “You’re well shed of that job,” and he was right. I completed a Ph.D. in fiction writing at the University of Utah and took a tenure-track position at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University). I became a counselor in a Relief Society presidency and then the president. I kept asking questions, corollaries of my original one: who was Jesus? What’s the temple really about? What does its story mean? Why is it structured the way it is? Why are scriptures so important? Or family history? Or serving others?
Answers have flowed into my hands.
I have a clear, confident testimony that God answers prayer, that praying is natural and desirable, a highly efficacious healing tool on multiple levels of consciousness because through it, questions can be answered and frustrations resolved. I have a more complicated testimony about Jesus, one that continues to grow and develop, not because my witness is immature but because Christ is a complicated entity. That Jesus is in fact who he said he was—the incarnation of Godhood in a human body at the meridian of time, come to show us how to be, and to save the human race from desiccation and destruction—can, in my experience, only be understood as we investigate deeply the very real need for his appearance on earth, for his Atonement, and for our continued efforts to live what he exemplified. What we’re doing on this planet as a species is not simple. God’s purpose “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of [mankind” (Moses 1:39]—this is not simple. And God begs us to ask about it.
I thank God every day in my prayers for the writers whose stories have led to answers and then guided me to the next ones. The fiction and nonfiction of such writers as Owen Barfield, Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf, and many others, has shed light on scriptures, described and explained mysteries of the human heart, and rewritten stories I have not fully understood until I found their work. I don’t suppose I’m an orthodox person. But I believe you could trust me to speak truth in regard to the gospel if I were the only Mormon you ever met. Joseph Smith restored remarkable truths, translated remarkable stories, ancient and important, yea, vital, essential to our salvation. The more witnesses we have, the better. I’m thankful to be one among many who call themselves “scholars,” and to add my story to theirs.
Barfield, Owen. Various works, particularly Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. First published 1957; most recent edition by Barfield Press, UK, 2011.
Jaques, John. “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 272.
Parker, W. H. “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus.” Children’s Songbook of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1989.
Julie J. Nichols is associate professor in the Department of English and Literature at Utah Valley University, where she teaches the writing of fiction and creative nonfiction as well as British literature and basic and advanced composition. She presents yearly at national conferences, most recently on the intersection of literary writing with what Owen Barfield calls “the evolution of human consciousness,” and her work has been published in Sunstone, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, The Journal for the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, and elsewhere. She is married to Jeff W. Nichols III; they have four children and eight grandchildren.
Posted May 2011