Review: Unveiling Grace

September 13th, 2013

Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Found Our Way Out of the Mormon Church is a compelling memoir of an American family’s journey into and back out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). After growing up in nominally Protestant but religiously lackadaisical homes, midwestern newlyweds Lynn Wilder and her husband found answers to their lingering spiritual questions from the Mormon missionaries who came to their door. That conversation began the Wilders’ three decades as devout, active Mormons, holding numerous leadership positions as they moved to Utah and raised their four children in the LDS faith. When their third and most zealous son embarked on his mission and knocked on the door of a Baptist pastor in Florida, he and eventually the whole family came to embrace evangelical Christianity.

I knew going in to this book that I would be more sympathetic to Mormonism than Lynn Wilder, who wrote from her perspective as a disillusioned former devotee. I have some Mormons on one branch of my family tree, and thus some cultural and theological curiosity about this tradition; and I have little appreciation for the tendency of some Christians to proclaim who is and is not a “true Christian.” Wilder showed signs throughout the book of what I call “the zeal of a new convert”—that tendency of anyone embracing a new ideology to exaggerate the merits of the new, the horrors of the old, and the chasm between the two.

Wilder herself acknowledges the possible negative effects of such zeal, confessing that some of her interactions had the “bulldozing enthusiasm of someone with new faith in Jesus,” and how over time she has grown more sensitive to the questions and concerns of her conversation partners. Nonetheless, Wilder often seems oblivious to the ways in which her criticisms of Mormonism could just as easily be applied to evangelical Christianity. For example, she looks back remorsefully at the “antenna for persecution” Mormonism gave them, being told that Satan would attack those who had the truth; however, by the end of the book, when she has been criticized for leaving the LDS church, she is comforted by the knowledge that the world will hate those who are in Christ. Similarly, she speaks of Mormons’ unique lingo, cherry-picking of scriptures that suit their beliefs, tendency to disguise gossipy and unaccommodating personalities with sweet smiles, and racist history as if mainstream Christianity were exempt from such things.

Despite these blind spots, Unveiling Grace is a fascinating read for anyone seeking a rare inside look at Mormon faith and practice. Wilder’s descriptions of a controlling and hierarchical church bureaucracy that puts committee-laden Protestant churches to shame did successfully rid me of any inclination I might have had to indulge my theological curiosity by inviting Mormon missionaries in for a chat. But the real lesson I find in Unveiling Grace is less about the merits of evangelicalism over Mormonism and more about the importance and power of passion and relevance in our Christian faith, which should be a lesson for all of us, especially those in mainline churches.

Had the church of Wilder’s youth and young adulthood proven itself to be a significant source of meaning in life and answers for the questions she was asking, she would not have been so easily compelled to embrace a new faith about which she knew relatively little. And while Mormonism was clearly all-consuming for the lives of the Wilders and all their LDS friends, their son’s passionate witness of evangelical Christianity, in the end, filled the gaps that Mormonism left open. It may be a mistake to read any lesson too much into a memoir, as story and storytelling are central elements at which Wilder succeeds, but Christian readers should not overlook Unveiling Grace’s implications for the power of passionate, authentic witness in their own faith and practice.

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